A year after losing the presidency, Democrats are facing an uncomfortable question: Are they willing to force a government shutdown to extract political victories — a hardball tactic for which they have long blasted Republicans?
The dilemma comes as a Jan. 19 funding deadline approaches and bipartisan negotiations over immigration and other issues have so far failed to produce an agreement. The thorniest issue is the fate of "dreamers" — roughly 2 million young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, some of whom had gained legal status under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that President Trump canceled.
A growing number of Democratic lawmakers have announced that they will not support any spending bill unless the fate of DACA recipients is secured. Now party leaders must decide how far they are willing to go.
A bipartisan White House meeting on Tuesday produced vague and sometimes contradictory promises from Trump but no clear path toward a deal. Top Republican leaders, meanwhile, said they oppose adding immigration provisions to a spending bill ahead of the Jan. 19 deadline.
That leaves Democratic leaders walking a tightrope, wielding their leverage but also trying to avoid the peril of an election-year shutdown that could rally the Republican base and alienate swing voters.
At the heart of the challenge is an internal split between lawmakers up for reelection this year, several of them in Republican-leaning states, and those eyeing a higher national profile, who are trying to appeal to the party's liberal base.
"There's many people in the Democratic Party who believe that the only thing we should do is a clean DACA [bill] with no border security," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who is seeking reelection in a state Trump won and attended Tuesday's White House meeting to advocate for maritime and northern border security measures. "I'm not one of those people. I think we need border security — but I want a plan."
Meanwhile, potential 2020 presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) are drawing a hard line. "No wall, nope," she told reporters Monday. "It's very important that we have a secure border, but spending bill ions and billions of dollars on this wall because of a political promise and a campaign promise is ridiculous."
Republicans have majorities in both chambers of Congress, but they do not have the Senate "super majority" necessary to rally the 60 votes needed for major legislation. Even if every GOP senator were to support a spending bill, it could not pass without the support of at least nine Democrats.
Lawmakers defused last year's spending showdowns, the first with Trump in the White House, by largely punting into 2018 key decisions on spending levels, immigration policy and the federal debt limit. Now, thanks in part to an impending immigration deadline and pressure from activists, Democrats are under pressure not only to take action now, but also not to bend to GOP demands for border wall funding and other policy changes that would curtail immigration.
Top Democrats spent years decrying Republican shutdown threats under President Barack Obama. Now, they reject the notion their party could in any way be liable for a shutdown.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that Trump's insistence on an expensive Mexican border wall would be to blame: "Make no mistake about it: A government shutdown will fall entirely on his shoulders," Schumer said.
But to Republican lawmakers, the irony is unmistakable.
"The shoe is on the other foot a little bit," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. "I just think it's an irresponsible threat to deploy any time by either party. It's interesting to see the Democrats being irresponsible for a change."
After winning the House in 2010, Republicans engaged in a string of showdowns with Obama over spending and other policy issues. A fiscal standoff in 2011 produced a long-term budget agreement that placed caps on the spending Congress doles out on a year-to-year basis. In 2013, Republicans forced a two-week shutdown over the Affordable Care Act without ultimately extracting any policy concessions. And in 2015, another shutdown appeared imminent over funding for Planned Parenthood, only to be defused by the sudden resignation of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Democrats routinely criticized that behavior, spurred by the demands of the GOP's hard-line conservative base, as "hostage-taking" that eroded the public's faith in government. Now, Republican leaders feel comfortable criticizing Democrats for doing the same.
"There are some people on the left that just want to use these complicated issues as negotiating points to threaten things like government shutdowns as opposed to finding solutions, and I think the American people are tired of that approach," said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
Democrats are facing demands from their own hard-line base, including one that they reject funding for Trump's wall. The White House last week insisted on $18 billion for a wall as a condition for any DACA deal.
On a conference call Tuesday convened by the immigrant advocacy group America's Voice, a dozen activists demanded that Congress act by Jan. 19 on behalf of dreamers, threatening political retribution if lawmakers failed to do so.
"A vote for any spending bill on Jan. 19 that does not have the Dream Act is a vote to deport the dreamers," said Angel Padilla, policy director of Indivisible, referring to a bill that would grant legal status and a path to citizenship to DACA recipients and more than a million more dreamers who did not participate in the program.
The sense of urgency among Democrats has been fueled by the fact that tens of thousands of DACA recipients have already lost legal status. The program expires entirely in March, a date that Republican leaders have cast as the actual deadline for action.
"I'm surprised to run into people around here who don't know that people actually are losing their status," said Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.). "There's this idea that it can wait until March — it's got to be done by the 19th."
But plenty of Democrats — including many who are outspoken supporters of more liberal immigration policies — have voiced discomfort with the idea of engaging in the sort of shutdown brinkmanship that marked the Obama presidency.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), for instance, has called for passage of the Dream Act but also represents hundreds of thousands of federal employees who stand to be furloughed in the event of a shutdown.
Ahead of a December deadline, Kaine said he could not vote to force a shutdown over the issue, and he was noncommittal Monday when asked if he'd be willing to draw a hard line for a dreamer fix in the next spending bill.
Kaine said he was "not going to predetermine" his position absent the details of a deal, but he also urged immigration activists to focus their efforts on Republicans who have not supported pro-dreamer legislation rather than Democrats who have.
"They have a right to do what they want to do, and look, I get it: They're panicked, and they ought to be, because this president broke a promise to them," he said. "But the last thing they need is for me to panic. They need me to be a tough negotiator and find the most likely way to get them the permanent protection they need."
Republican leaders, meanwhile, remain wary of any shutdown scenario given their congressional majorities, according to lawmakers and aides, but they also believe that it would be far from a political disaster if Democrats go to the mat over immigration policy. They believe, the Republicans said, that they can deliver the message that Democrats made unreasonable demands and that the GOP was more than willing to negotiate.
"I think it's a loser for everybody, but it's probably more of a loser if you're in control," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the fourth-ranking Senate GOP leader, who added a caveat for Democrats: "It depends on the reason that they use for that shutdown."
Numerous Republicans said this week that Democrats would have to accept some sort of wall funding to make the deal work.
In a Fox News interview Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused Democrats of reversing their prior position, noting that physical barriers were part of a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013.
"It's something they've supported in the past, but now for symbolic and political reasons, they're against it," he said. "So the Democrats are the ones threatening to shut down the government."
Democrats reject that claim, if not the underlying reality.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who represents a suburban Washington district chock full of federal employees, said the party has tried to foster a "climate of creative ambiguity."
"We're going to use every lever point we have," Connolly said. "I don't think we're the party of shutting down government. That is the other party. But right now they need our votes for a lot of things."