WASHINGTON — Democrats, whose brand as a party is based on government’s potential to positively affect lives, are seriously contemplating a government shutdown for the first time since Republicans won back Washington in last year’s elections.
Spurred on by a fired-up base who have declared themselves “the resistance” and the historically low approval ratings of President Trump, Democrats are now considering withholding their votes to fund the government until they get a deal to protect young unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children.
The government shuts down Friday at midnight if Congress doesn’t act.
“You know how many votes we usually got from Republicans when we kept government open or passed policies we thought were important?” Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said Tuesday.
Hoyer held up a piece of paper with the names of 90 Republicans who voted against funding the government and hurricane disaster aid in September. He argued that if Republicans can do it, Democrats can.
“We want to keep the government open, but we’re not going to be held hostage, to do things we think are contrary to the best interests of the American people,” Hoyer said.
There are political risks in deploying tactics more closely associated with Republican bomb-throwers like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose confrontational moves led to a partial government shutdown in 2013.
In that case, Republicans bore the brunt of the blame from the public, even though President Obama occupied the White House.
Republicans contend Democrats would be foolhardy to trigger a shutdown.
“If Democrats were to shut the government down over some immigration issues, I don’t think that would play well with the American people,” GOP Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama told the Globe.
But many Democrats are betting that Trump would get blamed this time around, not them, because of his foul-mouthed rejection of bipartisan immigration compromises.
Senator Ed Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, said he will not vote to fund the government unless a deal for young immigrants, opioid funding, children’s health insurance, disaster aid, and other priorities has been reached first.
“With Republicans in control of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, the only person to blame if the government shuts down will be President Trump,” Markey said in a statement.
The Democratic leadership has taken a tougher stance in negotiations since the president rejected a proposed bipartisan immigration deal last week that would have legalized more than 1 million young immigrants, many of whom are known as Dreamers because the legislation that would allow them to stay here is called the Dream Act. In exchange, Democrats would have gone along with spending millions of dollars for the border wall Trump wants and granted some changes to a diversity lottery immigration program that Trump opposes.
But in a pivotal closed-door meeting last week, the president said he did not want more people from countries in Africa and Haiti, which he reportedly derided in vulgar terms, to come to the United States. His comments were leaked to the Washington Post.
“We need a clean Dream Act by the time we vote on government funding. We cannot afford to keep kicking this can down the road. Our mission should be to protect Dreamers without reinforcing Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant agenda,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.
The president’s immigration comments also inflamed the Democratic grass roots, who are pressuring lawmakers like Markey and Warren to take a harder line against Trump.
“The base is fired up,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of the grass-roots liberal group MoveOn. “Succumbing to a president who appears to want a racial litmus test on immigration would be a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the Statue of Liberty.”
But shutting down the government is not a natural position for pro-government Democrats, who maligned Cruz and House Republicans for their hardline positions four years ago that ground Washington to a halt in October 2013 over funding for the Affordable Care Act. Obama successfully argued that Republicans were holding the government “ransom” and not doing their most basic job of funding the government.
“Democrats believe in government, they like to see government function well, so they’re inclined to turn the other cheek sometimes,” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who used to work for Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.
Fallon said this time, Democrats shouldn’t take a bad deal just to keep the government running smoothly.
“At some point, the Republicans are operating in such utter bad faith and the situations of these DACA kids are so dire, that I think the activists are right to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire here and say, ‘If not now, when?’ ”
It will likely be up to Schumer and Senate Democrats to decide whether to shut down the government over DACA, since the House could pass funding with Republican votes alone. In the Senate, though, just 41 of the Democrats’ 49 senators are needed to shut down the government.
Moderate Democratic senators from purple and red states, many of whom are facing tough reelection battles this year, have not joined in their party’s saber-rattling, leaving the outcome in doubt. One option would be to pass another in a series of short-term funding plans, leaving more time for negotiations.
Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Joe Manchin of West Virginia said over the weekend that they don’t believe Democrats should shut down the government over DACA.
“It should not come to that. We should stop shutting this government down,” Bennet said on “Meet the Press.” Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a vulnerable Democrat up for reelection this year, told The New York Times that she didn’t believe in drawing lines in the sand on funding negotiations.
But it’s possible Democrats’ pro-government reputation would shield them from blame if they do trigger a shutdown.
“I think Republicans always get blamed for a shutdown,” said Alex Conant, a political strategist who used to work for Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
Polls show then-House speaker Newt Gingrich was blamed for shutting down the government during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Republicans were blamed in 2013. Democrats, however, are less likely to catch blame because the public associates them with wanting to fund the government and because Trump is more unpopular than Clinton and Obama were at those times.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell echoed Obama’s antishutdown arguments from 2013 in a Senate floor speech Tuesday. “There is no reason why Congress should hold government funding hostage over the issue of illegal immigration,” McConnell said.
On Tuesday, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican from Arkansas, predicted Democrats wouldn’t go through with a shutdown.
“I mean, if the Democrats want to shut down the government over this, they can,” Cotton told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “They have the ability to filibuster any bill in the Senate. I don’t think that will work out very well for them, so I suspect they will not.”