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Can Democrats prevent shutdowns by refusing to ‘reward’ the tactic?

Why We Wrote This

Democrats say they are taking a stand on principle, though they themselves forced a shutdown a year ago. Whether either party tries a shutdown again will likely depend on the political fallout from this one.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi speak to reporters in Washington on Dec. 20, 2018. To the nation's top Democrats the current impasse over the border wall and government shutdown represents more than a battle of wills.

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From Day One of the longest government shutdown in history, Democrats have stuck to their guns: First, open the government. Then negotiate over border security. Their unwavering message has been that shutdowns must not be rewarded as a political tool. On Thursday, Democrats will put this reasoning to a test in the Senate, where lawmakers will vote on reopening the government for the first time since the partial shutdown began more than a month ago. Senators will vote on dueling measures: President Trump’s plan, which would fund the government through September and includes $5.7 billion for a wall; and the Democrats’ plan, which would fund the government through Feb. 8 and has no wall money. Both seem destined to fail. But even if Democrats prevail, it’s far from clear that this stand would deter future shutdowns. Government closures have become weaponized, observers say, and that’s not likely to change. Indeed, just one year ago, Democrats themselves forced a shutdown, though brief, over immigration. “There are ways to fix this,” says G. William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But given the current partisan politics, I don’t think it’s going away.”

From Day One of the longest government shutdown in history, Democrats have stuck to their guns: First, open the government. Then negotiate over border security. Their unwavering message has been that the president must not be allowed to hold federal workers “hostage” to get what he wants. Shutdowns must not be rewarded as a political tool.

On Thursday, Democrats will have an opportunity to put this reasoning to a test in the Senate, where lawmakers will vote for the first time on reopening the government since the partial shutdown began more than a month ago. Senators will vote on dueling measures: President Trump’s plan, which would fund the government through September and includes $5.7 billion for a wall; and the Democrats’ plan, which would fund the government through Feb. 8, allowing time to negotiate border security. It has no wall money.

Both measures seem destined to fail in the polarized Senate. But even if Democrats prevail in their demand, it’s far from clear that this stand would deter future shutdowns. Government closures have become weaponized, observers say, and that’s not likely to change. Indeed, just one year ago, Democrats themselves forced a shutdown, though brief, over immigration.

The Democrats’ demand to open the government first is “just part of the game,” says Patrick Griffin, who was legislative director for President Bill Clinton during the previous record-holding shutdown of 21 days. “It works until it doesn’t work,” he says. “You use it when it serves your purpose.”

The message also has served to keep Democrats unified. Not all Democrats oppose more funding for physical barriers along the border even if they object to a concrete wall.

“It’s a good argument because it’s about a fundamental framing, as opposed to a component that people may agree or disagree on,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Plus, people overwhelmingly agree the shutdown is Trump’s fault.”

In a speech on Saturday, Mr. Trump stepped back from demanding a $5.7 billion wall as “a 2,000-mile concrete structure from sea to sea” and instead called for barriers in select “high priority” locations, in exchange for three years of protected status for “Dreamers” and certain other immigrants. 

Democrats have rejected the offer, pointing out that it also would place new restrictions on asylum seekers who are minors. Despite being presented by the president as a compromise, the proposal was not made in consultation with Democrats.

Still, a group of centrist House Democrats reportedly wants Speaker Nancy Pelosi to offer the president a vote on his border wall and other security measures by the end of February, while allowing amendments to protect Dreamers – after the government is opened up. And some Democrats could support steel slats, a description that the president has been using.

“I think in some places it might be appropriate, yes,” Rep. Jahana Hayes, a Democratic freshman from Connecticut told reporters last week, referring to slat fencing. “I want the border to be secure.” 

Each shutdown has its own character – including, in this case, a dispute over whether the president will give his State of the Union address in the House on Jan. 29. The president insisted in a letter to Ms. Pelosi today that he would; she wrote back that the House will not consider it until the shutdown ends. 

Each shutdown also has its own political pain, and that will determine its next use as a political tool for leverage, says Mr. Griffin.

He points to the three-week shutdown over the holidays in the winter of 1995-96, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia went to the mat to balance the budget in seven years through dramatic cuts. Mr. Clinton offered a different plan: 10 years without those cuts. In the end, Republicans were forced to admit defeat, and Clinton won reelection.

It would be more than 17 years before congressional Republicans would again trigger a shutdown, this time over the Affordable Care Act. Their approval rating plummeted after that 16-day standoff in October 2013, instigated by the tea party caucus (one of its former members, Mick Mulvaney, is now the president’s acting chief of staff). But interestingly, that drop in approval did not last, and a year later, Republicans – still vowing to repeal Obamacare – took over the Senate.

“If this has an aftermath that leaves a really bad taste with the public, I think shutdown politics will be put on a shelf for a while,” says Griffin.

Still, Griffin does not see shutdowns as “inherently evil.” Congress has the right to use the power of the purse in a system of checks and balances, he argues.

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, agrees – within reason. Mr. Hoagland, the former director of the Senate Budget Committee under former Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, says shutdowns reflect a difference of opinion between the branches, and most shutdowns in American history have been brief. On the other hand, “ones that go on as long as this one border on being very evil.” He calls today’s standoff “a dangerous game” that’s putting life and property at risk, hurting workers and the economy.

To remedy this, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are promoting bills that would prevent future shutdowns. The bills call for automatic extension of current funding if the budget process breaks down, with various penalties for not agreeing on a new budget.

Hoagland supports this idea, which seems to come up every year. It typically faces resistance because some members feel it would take away the incentive to pass budgets at all – though as Hoagland points out, Congress is not passing budgets now, so what is there to lose?

Like Griffin, Hoagland believes shutdown standoffs are here to stay. And it’s not just shutdowns, but also the clash over the debt ceiling, which is coming later this spring and summer.

“There are ways to fix this,” he says, “but given the current partisan politics, I don’t think it’s going away.”

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