There is basically one thing the GOP needs to do to avoid a government shutdown tonight when the temporary funding
bill is set to expire: Offer a clean path to permanent legalization for Dreamers—individuals who have grown up as Americans even though they were brought to this country as minors illegally—and make them off-limits to this administration's deportation designs.
But that seems beyond the party's capacity.
The House just passed a stopgap funding bill that does nothing about Dreamers but it does extend CHIP, a health insurance program for children that Republicans have never liked, demonstrating that the only principle that animates their party in the Age of Trump is saving this land of immigrants from immigrants.
The ball now is in the Senate's court where the GOP Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will have to try and scrap together 60 votes to pass the bill and avoid a government shutdown. That's going to be a hard sell for what the House just passed given that many of the reluctant lawmakers who went along with the December stopgap bill did so with the aim of not disturbing their Christmas break and attaching an acceptable alternative to DACA in this round.
DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is an Obama-era program that handed a two-year (renewable) reprieve from deportation to about 690,000 Dreamers. But President Trump scrapped the program in September. And now if Congress does not legalize these folks by March, when the DACA phase out is set to begin, many of them will be up for deportation to countries where they practically know no one, leaving their lives and loved ones in America.
Clear majorities of Americans don't want that this to happen. Indeed, according to a poll by Fox News, an outfit no one would accuse of having any love lost for immigrants, 86 percent of Americans favor permanent legal status for Dreamers and 79 percent a path to citizenship. And clear majorities in both houses of Congress want the same thing. Indeed, as I wrote in December, 232 Congressmen and 55 Senators are prepared to vote for a clean Dreamer fix with no further changes to the immigration system.
Of course, hewing to this majority sentiment won't sit well with the one group of voters that matters most to Republicans: President Trump's hardline restrictionist base for whom anything short of mass deportations to eject every last unauthorized weed-puller is "amnesty." He wants to appease these folks by using Dreamers as leverage to push a nativist version of comprehensive immigration reform whose least draconian feature is a $20 billion border wall. In addition, he wants to mandate that all employers use E-verify to check the authorization status of new recruits against a federal database, end diversity visas for denizens of underrepresented countries, and, above all, cut legal immigration by taking away the ability of Americans and legal permanent residents to sponsor their siblings and parents, a process that Trump, borrowing nativist parlance, berates as "chain migration."
A bipartisan Gang of Six senators led by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was trying to hammer out a less odious plan that, among other things, would have provided funding for border security but not a border wall and diverted the existing diversity visas to Haitians, El Salvadorians, and other asylum seekers from "shithole" countries whose Temporary Protected Status Trump has also revoked. But after initially responding to these efforts warmly, Trump backtracked when, reportedly, some hardliners in his administration such as Chief of Staff John Kelly, who many once thought would be a voice of moderation on this issue, told him to knock it off.
But forcing Senate Democrats—and moderate Republicans—to swallow what Sen. Graham has described as a "shitshow" wasn't going to be easy. That's why they have attached a six-year extension of CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) that covers 9 million kids to the House government spending bill sans a DACA fix to force Democrats to swallow it. It's unclear if conservative fiscal hardliners in the Senate will go along with this bargain. But even if McConnell manages to convince all Republicans to stick together, he'll still need nine Democratic votes to pass the bill given that Sen. John McCain (R-Az) is absent for health reasons.
If enough Democrats do play along, their party will effectively lose serious leverage to negotiate a clean DACA fix as the March deadline for the deportation of Dreamers approaches. If they don't, Republicans will blame them for shutting down the government and jeopardizing children's health care. (Imagine Republican ads in swing states where vulnerable Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri are up for re-election this year: "McCaskill put illegal immigrants ahead of your child's health.")
In other words, Republicans have tried to construct a "heads I win, tails you lose" scenario. This is a deeply cynical strategy in the service of draconian ends, and it has a serious potential to backfire.
Republicans control all three branches of government, so it is not clear that they will be able to deflect blame on Democrats if the government does shut down. Furthermore, Republicans have never been fans of CHIP so convincing voters that they are actually acting in the interest of the program—rather than trying to trap Democrats—isn't going to be easy. Also, they are vastly underestimating the moral revulsion that's likely to sweep through the country when footage of Dreamers getting torn away from their families by deportation agents hits the boob tube. Already, the heart-wrenching deportation to Mexico this week of a 39-year-old Dreamer in Michigan, who had lived in America for 30 years and had an American wife and kids, sent shock-waves through the country.
We'll see tonight if Democrats, whose own president's lopsided priorities are responsible for putting Dreamers and their parents in harms way, stand up to this odious strategy. And if they do, we'll see if they—or Republicans—pay the price for it in the mid-term elections in December.
But one thing is already clear: The GOP is now fully Trump's party. There is no limit to what principles it'll abandon just to keep immigrants out of the country. Maybe it will deport the Statue of Liberty next.