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Opinion: House Democrats have no leverage to help the Dreamers; they can’t afford to block the Senate budget deal

The prospects for another government shutdown rest largely with House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and House Speaker Paul Ryan, (R-Wis.), shown attending a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House Dec. 7.
(Olivier Douliery / TNS)

Senate Democrats appear to have learned something from their face plant on the government shutdown last month. But have their counterparts in the House?

With funding for the federal government set to run out Thursday, Senate leaders revealed Wednesday that they’d reached a deal not just to keep the government funded, but to provide big increases in spending through September 2019. The disclosure culminated weeks of negotiations over whether to override the budget caps set in 2011, which would have held spending this fiscal year at a few billion dollars below fiscal 2017.

For the record:

4:30 p.m. Feb. 7, 2018An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly identified Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the Senate majority leader. He is the chamber’s minority leader.

Just as Republicans discovered with their debt-laden tax bill last year, it’s always easier to strike a deal when you stop pretending that you care about the deficit. Here, Democrats agreed to the GOP’s demand for more military spending, busting the Pentagon’s cap by $80 billion this year and $85 billion in fiscal 2019. In turn, Republicans acceded to the Democrats’ desire for a significant boost in domestic spending, providing $63 billion above the cap this year and $68 billion next year. The deal also would extend funding for community health centers (two years) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (10 years), while providing billions more to combat the opioid epidemic.

We just saw a version of this movie, and it didn’t end well for the Democrats.

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Some Republicans in the House, however, are still going to complain about the deal ballooning the deficit, even after voting to add north of $1 trillion in debt with their tax cuts over the coming decade. If they oppose it, the bill could not pass without some Democratic votes. That would enable the minority party to demand something in exchange — say, protection for the Dreamers, the roughly 3.6 million immigrants in the country illegally who were brought here when they were children.

And that’s exactly what some House Democrats want to do. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) indicated Wednesday that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would have to commit at least to holding a vote on a bipartisan proposal for the Dreamers, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has done.

On one level, this doesn’t seem like much to ask. Polls show that a large majority of Americans want to help the Dreamers. And there have been plenty of bipartisan proposals to give them legal status while also improving border security and addressing other failings in U.S. immigration policy.

But we just saw a version of this movie, and it didn’t end well for the Democrats. After triggering the shutdown on Jan. 19, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called off the filibuster because it was clear that Republicans weren’t going to negotiate over the Dreamers under those circumstances. No surprise — Senate Democrats and President Obama took the same stance when House Republicans forced a shutdown in 2013 over Obamacare funding. The argument then as now is that if the majority party makes concessions to end a shutdown, there will be no end to the shutdowns.

Nor does the public react well when must-pass budget bills are taken hostage over an unrelated issue. That’s why Democrats have no real leverage here; Trump recognized as much when he said he’d “love to see a shutdown” over immigration.

The political dynamics might well be different if Democrats were opposing the bill because the GOP had inserted a polarizing rider or some other poison pill. But that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Yes, Republicans control the House and, as the governing party, should be able to muster a majority for spending bills. But if this one doesn’t pass and the government shuts down again because the Democrats didn’t get what they wanted on the Dreamers, no one’s going to blame the few dozen Republicans who voted “no.”

jon.healey@latimes.com

Twitter: @jcahealey


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