The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schumer offered Trump something Democrats hate for something Republicans broadly like

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) faulted President Trump and Senate Republicans for the government shutdown. (Video: U.S. Senate)

When the New York Times first reported it, it seemed unlikely. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered President Trump funding for his wall in exchange for protecting immigrants who entered the country illegally as children? The most powerful Democrat in the Senate was willing to support one of his party’s most-hated proposals, just like that? The Times wrote simply that Schumer “discussed the possibility of fully funding the president’s wall on the southern border with Mexico” — which leaves some wiggle room.

On the floor of the Senate on Saturday, though, Schumer explained that it was almost exactly that: A deal on those covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that would also potentially fund the wall.

“On the thorniest issue, of immigration,” Schumer said, “the president said many times he would take a deal that had included DACA in exchange for the wall. I put that deal on the table in the Oval Office in a sincere effort at compromise. I put the wall on the table in exchange for strong DACA protections. … It was a generous offer.”

That it was. Schumer offered to give Trump something that Schumer’s own base would hate; in return, Republicans would agree to something that their base is fine with.

CNN and its polling partner SRSS unveiled a poll Friday that explored the popularity of both issues.

The wall, as has consistently been the case, is not very popular: 6 in 10 Americans oppose building it, though among Republicans three-quarters approve.

A PRRI survey last month asked respondents how strongly they supported or opposed the wall. From PRRI’s analysis, with emphasis added:

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans, compared to only 12% of Democrats, favor the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly nine in ten (87%) Democrats oppose it, including roughly two-thirds (66%) who strongly oppose it. Although Republican support for the wall has remained relatively stable since 2016, Democrats have become more unified in their opposition.

By contrast, the DACA program — which allows those who immigrated illegally as children to remain and work in the United States — is broadly popular: 84 percent of Americans think it should be preserved, including 72 percent of Republicans.

Meaning, in essence, that DACA is about as popular as the wall among members of Trump’s own party.

Asked how important maintaining DACA is, 6 in 10 Americans said it was extremely or very important that Congress continue the policy, including majorities of Democrats and independents. Republicans were about split, with a slight majority leaning toward moderately or not important.

But CNN also asked a question that gets to the heart of the deal Schumer may have been trying to make.

Those who oppose building the wall and support DACA were asked which was more important as a political priority: Opposing the wall or supporting DACA? The overwhelming answer — especially among Democrats — was preserving DACA. Meaning that, if the choice were between allowing the wall and keeping DACA or having neither, most Democrats would make the same choice that Schumer did.

What’s more, what Schumer offered was apparently not the full cost of covering the entire border along the wall. In a news conference on Saturday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney disparaged Schumer for claiming to have agreed to funding the wall — he actually agreed to only the $1.6 billion the administration asked for in 2017.

Schumer’s not necessarily in the clear politically. In the abstract, Democrats may agree with trading the wall for DACA (or trading $1.6 billion in wall funding), but he might need to sell his party on that being an unavoidable choice (which it doesn’t seem that it was). Agreeing to the wall in any way will likely be seen by many on the left as not only a victory for the president they despise but an insult to Hispanics living in the United States. Democratic leadership agreeing to it relatively easily probably wouldn’t go over that well.

Schumer’s in another risky position, too. While most people support DACA and think it should be a priority, most also don’t see risking the budget to preserve it as the right choice. Among Democrats, a plurality — but not a majority — think that instantiating DACA is more important than avoiding a shutdown. Republicans and independents disagree.

The Democrats’ challenge, of course, is that they don’t have much power in Washington right now. If you want to preserve DACA, you use what leverage you can, and the budget is one of the few points of leverage there are. Democrats are mixed on whether that’s the right call — or they were before the shutdown happened. (We can probably predict some partisan hardening on attitudes toward the shutdown now that it’s underway.)

How disadvantaged are the Democrats when it comes to negotiating? So disadvantaged that the senior Democrat in the Senate was willing to agree to something that his party hates (and most Americans oppose) in exchange for something that nearly everyone, including Republicans, support.

Speaking to the media shortly afterward, Schumer’s description of the conversation changed a bit.

“I reluctantly put his wall request for the Southern border on the table,” Schumer said. “It was his request.”