Republicans called it the “Schumer shutdown,” citing the Senate Democratic leader’s role in blocking the bill to prevent a government shutdown. The Democrats labeled it the “Trump shutdown,” blaming lack of Republican urgency and the president’s shifting positions on the key immigration issue.
But every party involved in the brief federal shutdown bears some blame. And the underlying reasons reflect a pattern that will unfortunately recur in the future, perhaps as soon as three weeks, unless lawmakers — especially the Republican majority — remember that Congress can lead on issues and the Trump White House gets its act together.
Ironically, there is substantial bipartisan agreement on many of the underlying issues, including money for hurricane relief, opioid relief, community health centers and children’s health, and the need to permanently protect the young people brought here illegally as children and temporarily protected by President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Here is why everyone, in no meaningful order, is responsible:
— President Donald Trump: Trump, who sold himself to the American people as a master deal-maker, made no effort to make one. Perhaps it’s because he angered advocates of a DACA fix the last time he tried by saying one day he’d accept whatever Congress passed and then rejecting two days later a bipartisan plan to do just that.
— Vice President Mike Pence: Unlike prior vice presidents, the former House Republican was AWOL. He has little credibility among Senate Democrats and was in the Middle East, defending Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and attacking Democrats.
— White House staff: Publicized disagreements among Trump and some staff members created substantial confusion and frustration on Capitol Hill. Trump’s change on DACA proposals is largely blamed on pressure from Chief of Staff John Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller, architect of many hardline Trump immigration moves. The same thing apparently happened again last Friday when the White House shot down Schumer’s hopeful characterization of a meeting at which he says he agreed to fund Trump’s “wall” along the U.S.-Mexican border.
— House Republicans: Because they are dominated by members more conservative than the country and the rules let them ignore minority Democrats, they have repeatedly passed legislation unacceptable to the more bipartisan Senate, especially funding bills stalemated by disagreement over the balance between defense and domestic spending. This time, they passed a bill they knew Senate Democrats would reject.
— House Democrats: They have no blame because they have no power. House GOP procedures previously blocked their ability to form a bipartisan majority on immigration with less conservative Republicans.
— Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell: Though his majority is smaller, McConnell has run the Senate like the House, ignoring the Democrats whenever possible and using the rules to block their amendments. He blamed the lack of a clear White House position as a reason for delaying an immigration debate. His prior failure to follow through on health and immigration promises concerned many Democrats.
— Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer: Under pressure from the DACA youths and their supporters, Schumer and fellow Democrats cast the votes shutting down the government, unrealistically demanding the interim funding bill also protect DACA recipients. They felt they needed to take a stand on an issue where the public favors their position. But their retreat reflected recognition they are politically vulnerable to GOP criticism, especially in pro-Trump states where Democratic senators face tough re-election fights.
By displaying willingness to schedule Senate debate with an open amendment process on DACA, McConnell seemed to accept Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s plea Saturday he abandon his argument the Senate would consider immigration “as soon as we figure out” Trump’s stance.
“It is a pretty poor excuse to sit here and say: We can’t deal with President Trump, “Alexander said. “We are the U.S. Senate. We can make our own decisions about DACA” and other issues and present them to the House and to the president.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Even if McConnell keeps his word and a bipartisan Senate majority passes a DACA bill, doubt remains if House GOP leaders would schedule it. But Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a prominent GOP moderate, said on MSNBC that a bipartisan bill could pass the House, and the Freedom Caucus chair, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, told MSNBC, “We’re willing to find a deal.” Trump’s position remains disturbingly imprecise.
Another thing not simple is assessing the political impact of the shutdown, though Republicans declared victory and some liberal groups accused the Democrats of surrender. After both the 1996 and 2013 shutdowns, the Democratic White House was seen the initial victor. But when Americans next voted, Democratic President Bill Clinton won in 1996, and congressional Republicans in 2014, suggesting future events will influence ultimate judgments.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: [email protected].