Schumer’s very bad week and the Democratic dilemma

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is having a rough week.

After taking his fellow Senate Democrats over a cliff late last week by forcing a shutdown of the federal government, the New Yorker lost the messaging battle to President Trump and congressional Republicans, who stayed united. Why did this fight go against Mr. Schumer? It’s simple — Democrats went into battle already divided.

With 10 Senate Democrats facing reelection in 2018 from states that Mr. Trump won, the list of defectors was ripe for the picking, depending on the policy issue. Mr. Schumer was abandoned by his own most vulnerable incumbents.

As it turns out, shutting down the government in January to protect a subset of illegal immigrants who face a March deadline was not just irresponsible — it was political malpractice.

Mr. Schumer lost his grip on his caucus beginning Saturday, as it became clear that the cheap talking points offered by Democrats went nowhere.

Let’s review a few key attack lines:

“Republicans control all of Washington!” Yes, the GOP enjoys majority control. If that were enough, the government would never have shut down. In the Senate, 60 votes were needed, and on Friday, the votes weren’t there. By Monday, the Republicans had the votes they needed — once Democrats came on board.

“Schumer put the border wall on the table!” No, he didn’t. He put an authorization of up to $20 billion on the table, but not an actual appropriation of actual money. The Secure Fence Act, which passed in 2006, was fully authorized. The reason the fence is not fully built on the southern border is that Congress still has not fully appropriated the money. This Congress cannot bind a future Congress as it relates to spending.

“Democrats were for a CHIP extension before they were against it.” For weeks, Democrats whined about the expiration of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health insurance funding to states so they can insure poor kids. On Friday night, Democrats effectively voted against extending CHIP for six years, the longest extension in history. That position was not sustainable.

“The Republicans conceded nothing.” Check the timeline. Democrats voted against a four-week continuing resolution Friday. On Monday, they voted for a three-week extension. There was nothing substantively different between the two versions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who said she was “disappointed” with Mr. Schumer’s deal to reopen the government, observed that if the only difference was shortening the extension by a week, it wasn’t worth shutting the government down for three days. Indeed.

The most significant consequences of the shutdown fight are twofold: Democrats can’t use shutting down the government as a tactic for the rest of the year, and the divided Democrats have to deal with a base that is now angrier than ever.

Mr. Schumer also has to contend with the “presidential candidate wing” of his caucus, the class of 2020 White House wannabes for whom no deal is sufficiently liberal and no guerrilla tactic is off limits if it hurts President Trump and his agenda.

In the end, the shutdown will matter little. It lasted barely 72 hours, but only one business day. It will be forgotten by next week.

What will matter is what kind of deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers” is ultimately negotiated.

The White House has been reasonably clear about what they want: protections for the Dreamers; significant funding for the border wall; transitioning from a family-based chain migration system to a more merit-based system; and an overhaul of the visa lottery system. But the legislative dynamics are not easy. Any final agreement will have to attract at least 60 votes in the Senate, a majority in the House (almost surely including a “majority of the majority” threshold among Republicans), and the signature of Mr. Trump.

Can these things happen by February 8? I doubt it.

Legislators can make significant progress, and if Democrats foolishly attempt to shut the government down again on February 8, Mr. McConnell has pledged to bring immigration legislation to the floor for consideration.

Do Democrats want to solve the DACA problem? Or do they want an issue for the midterms?

Mr. Trump has a real opportunity here. He can deliver certainty for the estimated 800,000 Dreamers, while also delivering on promises he made to institute important reforms to the nation’s immigration system.

With the shutdown in the rearview mirror, there are miles of road ahead to broker a deal that both sides can accept.


Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” may be found on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and at