The deal set to end the first government shutdown in four years went something like this:
- Senate Republicans told Senate Democrats they'll consider considering a bill to protect “dreamers.”
- Democrats exchanged that IOU slip on immigration for their votes in favor of a short-term spending bill reopening the government until at least February. “We expect that a bipartisan bill on DACA will receive fair consideration and an up-or-down vote on the floor,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday, announcing his support for a bill to reopen the government.
- The House of Representatives votes on that spending bill.
- The White House signs it.
- Then this whole political drama starts over in a few weeks.
A bill for a bill. Sounds simple enough. This was Democrats' request all along, a guarantee that Republicans take up a bipartisan bill on immigration. In essence, the government reopens with things largely where it closed. But the crux of this strategy, and the reason it took so long to arrive here, is trust. There just hasn't been enough of it on either side to make a deal work, at least not one that gets a deal without shutting down the government first.
It's also not immediately clear there is an ironclad deal, which has a number of Democrats nervous and frustrated.
Democrats are still on edge about whether Republican leaders will actually bring a dreamer bill for a vote. Schumer's speech announcing his party's support to reopen the government contained a warning to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “I expect the majority leader to fulfill his comment to the Senate to me and the bipartisan group. If he doesn't — and of course, I expect he will — he will breach the trust of not only Democratic senators but members of his own party.”
There's that word again. Trust.
Similar to how trust must be earned, trust is eroded by actions. And Democrats have said it's fair game to raise questions about Republicans' ability to stick to their word.
Perhaps the most recent — and apropos — example comes from a broken promise within Senate Republicans' own party.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) gave her party her vote on a tax overhaul in December in exchange for a promise from Senate Republicans to immediately vote on two bills shoring up the health insurance markets. (The tax bill took a big whack at Obamacare by repealing the individual mandate requiring healthy people get insurance or pay a fine.)
She didn't get that vote in 2017. We are weeks into 2018, and she still hasn't gotten that vote. It's not a certain thing she ever will.
“I'm disappointed that the commitment for the vote by the end of they year was not kept,” Collins told reporters Monday, when they asked her about her experience trusting Senate Republican leadership. “But I'm optimistic it is going to be.”
She acknowledged that Republican leaders could do more to earn skeptical Democrats' trust that Republicans will bring up a deal on dreamers if the government reopens.
“I do think it would be helpful if the language were a little bit stronger,” she said, “because the level of tension is so high.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), standing beside her in front of reporters' cameras and microphones, put it more bluntly, saying he thinks there could be a deal, “if the majority leader says stronger words.”
Let's assume McConnell has every intention of bringing up a bill protecting dreamers to a vote in the Senate. That's very different from guaranteeing it would pass the Senate. And from there, there's no guarantee House Republicans would consider it. And no one trusts the president to stick to whatever Congress comes up with for a deal.
In short, this is far from a deal to end a shutdown in exchange for getting dreamers protected.
Senate Democrats are also iffy about Republicans' ability to negotiate as a united front. While Trump and Republicans point the finger at Democrats for making immigration such a sticking point in this spending bill, Democrats point the finger right back at Republicans for being unable to even strike a deal.
Schumer said he offered Trump money for his border wall in exchange for protecting dreamers. And Trump seemed receptive to it, then clamped down.
“The White House refused to negotiate,” Schumer said of his weekend negotiations.
There is a strong case to make that Trump is a big reason the government shut down. He's consistently muddled, backtracked and even reneged on related negotiations over immigration, even bills that key members of his party support. McConnell got so frustrated with the president that, days before the shutdown, he publicly called out Trump to make up his mind.
“I'm looking for something that President Trump supports, and he has not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign,” McConnell said Wednesday. “As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels.”
From Republicans' perspective, Democrats don't come to the negotiating table with intentions that match up exactly to their words. They are the ones who voted against a spending bill (alongside four Republicans) over an immigration deadline that is weeks away.
Both sides have legitimate reasons to blame the other and thus not to trust each other. And that has been probably the biggest reason the government had to shut down in the first place.