Opinion writer

Events moved in favor of Democrats today in the battle to gain leverage and cast blame for the looming shutdown, set to begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. For starters, it does not appear that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has 50, let alone the necessary 60 votes to pass the House bill. Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) say they will not vote for it; Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah), who disfavor short-term budget deals, may join them, as well.

In addition, the fantasy that an unpopular president with majorities of his party in the House and Senate could shift blame to Democrats has started to crumble. A Post-ABC poll found:

A 48 percent plurality says Trump and congressional Republicans are mainly responsible for the situation resulting from disagreements over immigration laws and border security, while 28 percent fault Democrats. A sizable 18 percent volunteer that both parties are equally responsible. Political independents drive the lopsided margin of blame, saying by a 46-to-25-percent margin that Republicans and Trump are responsible for the situation.

In addition to Trump’s and the GOP’s unpopularity, their handling of this episode surely contributed to their disadvantage in the blame game. Trump said he’d take any bipartisan deal to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but when given just such a deal, he blew up and lashed out at “shithole” countries. His insistence on the very unpopular wall contrasts with the overwhelming bipartisan support the “dreamers” have around the country. The perception that the president is erratic, unhelpful and maybe not following what’s going on also contributes to the sense that he’s to blame. And he is, of course, erratic, unhelpful and not following along, and therefore has contributed more than any other player to the chaos.

Republicans probably aren’t helped by Trump’s schedule. He is anxious to get out of town to attend a shindig at Mar-a-Lago (He’s spent a third of his presidency at his properties) and then travel to Davos, Switzerland. For now, his departure to Florida has been taken off the calendar. The prospect of being trapped in the White House haggling with McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) cannot be enticing for him.

So this afternoon down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House went Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), without McConnell in tow. After 90 minutes, word came that “progress” was made. Schumer stated, “We had a long and detailed meeting, we discussed all of the major outstanding issues, we made some progress, and we still have a good number of disagreements. The discussions will continue.” It’s not clear whether that progress means a freeze on the shutdown clock, at least in a small increment; this might entail a one- or two-day continuing resolution.

The fundamental divide remains: Republican anti-immigrant voices refuse to make a realistic deal on DACA, but Democrats won’t give them their votes to fund the government without DACA. The president doesn’t seem as though he can decide which group to support.

As things stand now, with Democrats united and Trump itching to get out of town, you have to favor some deal that fixes DACA. If not, and if anti-immigrant hard-liners have the president’s ear, we may be heading for a shutdown for a significant period of time.

UPDATE (11:15 p.m.): In a vote he surely knew would fail, McConnell (R-Ky.) could not get a simple majority, let alone 60 votes to proceed on the House continuing resolution. While McConnell has not cast his vote, he will likely be compelled for procedural reasons to vote no (to bring up the bill later), thereby leaving the vote at 50-48. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, did not vote.

There are several aspects worth noting at this late hour. First, although Schumer lost five Democrats (who voted to proceed), McConnell remarkably lost four votes, making it that much harder to pin the shutdown on Democrats. The degree to which the hard-line anti-immigration crowd has divided the GOP is remarkable. Second, to put on my former labor lawyer hat, McConnell’s lack of urgency today was stunning. This situation is akin to a labor contract negotiation leading up to a strike deadline. Not to have a single joint meeting with Democrats and the president or exchange any proposals in the final day represents a stunning level of irresponsibility. Republicans control both houses and the White House; not to make every effort to initiate talks and find a solution suggests they no longer know how to cut deals. Finally, having a self-described dealmaker in the Oval Office was worthless, since the dealmaker is totally incapable of mastering policy details, expressing a policy preference (and sticking with it for more than an hour) and moving both sides to conclusion. This is what comes from electing someone entirely in over his head. It did not help that Trump reportedly whined to staff about missing his party at Mar-a-Lago. His reputation as a man-child remains intact.

The shutdown awaits, but the weekend provides time to find a solution before the start of business on Monday. Let’s hope saner and more experienced heads prevail.

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