On first day of partial government shutdown, Democrats’ strategy poses some risks

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the government shutdown at a news conference hours after it took effect.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the government shutdown at a news conference hours after it took effect.
(Shawn Thew / EPA/Shutterstock)

Democrats have grown used to winning political face-offs over government shutdowns, smiling from the sidelines as Republicans struggled to contain the unruly factions in their party. On Saturday, Democrats got a taste of that stomach-churning game.

On the first day of the first partial government shutdown since 2013, Democrats were playing a risky strategy, caught between a rising activist base that demands protection for young immigrants and moderate lawmakers who fear taking the blame as iconic sites like the Statue of Liberty were closed and an estimated 800,000 federal employees faced the prospect of unpaid furloughs.

Both sides furiously blamed the other for the impasse, which is unlikely to end before Monday, and both sides faced considerable political danger as they gear up for midterm elections this fall that could swing according to how long the shutdown lasts — and whom the public views as responsible.

Democrats say they are confident as they stare down an unpopular President Trump and a Republican Party that controls both chambers of Congress. They say voters will blame the party in power for what they called the “Trump shutdown.”


But Democrats may have more to lose than the already unpopular Republicans if the dysfunction lingers. Republicans pointed the finger at Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for what they labeled the “Schumer shutdown.”

“With Trump’s approval in the doghouse and the GOP struggling to get things done, attention turns and focuses on the Democrats as obstructionists rather than the Democrats standing for principle,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.

Democrats said they are determined to negotiate a deal that includes some protection for about 700,000 young immigrants known as “Dreamers” who were brought to the country illegally as children. Trump canceled the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, with a March expiration date.

Party centrists worry that tying the fate of undocumented immigrants — even those who grew up as Americans — to a bill to keep the government open could prompt a backlash from voters and kill their hopes of retaking Congress next fall.


On Capitol Hill, lawmakers huddled among themselves, convened a rare weekend session and traded phone calls with White House officials. But they offered no promise that they could quickly undo the shutdown, which began when a midnight deadline expired and government funding lapsed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scheduled a vote that, under Senate rules, could be held no sooner than 1 a.m. Monday, to provide a three-week spending bill in hopes of forcing enough Democrats to fold before the work week begins. The vote could be moved up to Sunday if senators agree.

“Let’s end this foolishness,” McConnell said as he opened the chamber at noon.

But as he and Schumer tried to hatch a plan that could win 60 votes in a bipartisan deal, Republicans took turns blaming Senate Democrats who led a filibuster Friday that halted a House-passed funding bill that would have continued operations through Feb. 16.


House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield Republican, accused Democrats of throwing a “tantrum” because they did not get what they wanted in the House bill. “We did our job,” argued Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

But Schumer said dealing with the Republicans has been like an old Abbott and Costello comedy routine, with GOP leaders sending him to talk with Trump at the White House, and the president pushing him back to Republican leaders.

Schumer said he thought he and Trump had made a deal to protect Dreamers and provide more money for a wall along the Mexican border, Trump’s priority, only to have the president abruptly change course.

“Negotiating with the White House is like negotiating with Jell-O,” Schumer said.


The calendar also is a factor. Trump is scheduled to deliver his first State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 30, and both sides are trying to leverage that date to gain concessions.

Trump was forced to cancel a weekend trip to Mar-a-Lago, his beachfront resort in Florida, that included a lavish political fundraiser Saturday night — in which a pair of tickets started at $100,000 — to celebrate his first year in office. If the shutdown lingers, he may have to cancel a planned trip on Thursday and Friday to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

During the last government shutdown, in October 2013, Trump called President Obama’s inability to keep the government open a failure in presidential leadership. On Saturday the White House blamed Democrats for Trump’s inability to do so.

“The president will not negotiate on immigration reform until Democrats stop playing games and reopen the government,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.


The effects of the shutdown are limited over the weekend, when most government offices are closed.

The Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums in Washington and New York and the National Zoo stayed open. The nation’s military will stay on duty, although service members’ pay may be delayed, and key veterans’ services could face disruption. The White House said Saturday that about 90,000 National Guardsmen and 20,000 Army Reservists had their training canceled.

Barclays estimated that each week of a shutdown shaves 0.1 of a percentage point from quarterly economic growth. But because it is early in the quarter, the economy could make up for some, or all, of that loss before the end of the quarter, especially if the shutdown is brief.

Democrats were urged to hold firm by immigrant advocacy groups, who said they were assured that party leaders would use their leverage in the budget fight to get a deal to protect the Dreamers.


Erika Andiola, a Dreamer activist and former press secretary to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), tweeted her thanks to Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for “holding the line.”

“We count on you to keep holding it until we win the Dream Act and the government opens again,” she said.

Democrats have assumed that the Republicans’ hold on the White House and Congress, combined with Trump’s erratic negotiations, would insulate them from blame for a government shutdown. Many early polls vindicated that strategy, showing most Americans would blame either Trump or GOP congressional leaders if the government were forced to close.

But those surveys were largely taken before House Republicans rallied their most disruptive members to pass a stopgap measure in their chamber Thursday. That measure was blocked in the Senate on Friday, by Democrats — and a few Republicans — who prevented the GOP leadership from reaching a 60-vote threshold needed to hold a vote.


Dreamers are extremely popular in polls, with large majorities of Americans eager to grant them legal status.

Yet in a CNN poll released Friday, 56% of Americans said keeping the government open was more important than protecting the Dreamers, compared with 34% who said it was more important to continue DACA, which allows Dreamers to work legally without threat of deportation.

The five Democrats who joined Republicans in voting to end debate on the government funding bill on Friday are among the most vulnerable because they come from conservative states. They expressed support for Dreamers but urged their colleagues to find another way to protect them.

“Funding the government is one of our most basic constitutional obligations & now because of partisan politics, the government will shut down,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, tweeted. “Governing this way is dangerous to our national security and embarrassing for both political parties.”


But the party is shifting away from moderates as it attempts to harvest the anger of the anti-Trump resistance movement. Hundreds of thousands of women marched in demonstrations in Los Angeles, Washington and other cities Saturday, the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration.

“Democrats are sticking up for kids. What is wrong with that?” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist based in Massachusetts, speaking of the Dreamers.

Come election time, the shutdown might be “a factor,” but it won’t be “the factor,” she added. “It will be something remembered by some voters who are already parked on one side or the other.”

Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Democratic leaders, said Democrats may have to swallow some tough headlines in the coming days, but he believes “most have come to appreciate that it’s finally time to stand up against House and Senate Republicans and a politically unpopular president.”


“I see no reason for Republicans to compromise for at least a few more days because they’re trying to make Democrats sweat,” he said, adding that he expects Republicans to offer more concessions after a few days, once they see Democrats won’t be moved.

Bill Carrick, who worked for the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) through shutdowns in the 1980s, cautioned against quick assessments of the politics because no one knows how it will play out or how voters will react months from now.

“A poll taken in the middle of all this is worthless,” he said.

But the rule of thumb in his time was that the president usually took the blame, he said.


Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @noahbierman


Twitter: @LisaMascaro