It is fitting that the United States marked the first anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president with a government shutdown, which ended Monday as Congress passed a temporary funding bill. But the historical event — the first shutdown ever when the same party controlled both the White House and the Congress — encapsulates the Trump administration’s style of governance, is indicative of the breakdown of trust between not only the two parties but also the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and makes plain the continuing dysfunction in Washington — a source of concern for Japan and other U.S. allies and partners.
The crux of this dispute is the fate of the 800,000 “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and who have grown up there. President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which essentially provided them amnesty. Immigration hardliners have been incensed by that and demanded it be halted. Trump did that last year, but called on Congress to offer them protections before the program expires in March. While majorities in both parties say they do not want to deport DACA recipients, they cannot agree on the terms of a deal that would keep them in the country — Republicans want concessions on defense and border security — as well as the timing of any vote. Without a deal on the Dreamers, Democrats have withheld support for a bill to fund the government; hence the shutdown.
Partisan divisions have been exacerbated by bad blood between Democrats and the White House. Democrats say that they have twice come close to striking deals that would keep the government open only to have the president renege on the agreements. As Chuck Schumer, head of the Democratic Party in the Senate, complained, “it is like negotiating with Jell-O.” Even Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate and ostensibly one of the president’s closest allies in Congress, has conceded that he does not know what the president wants in a deal. Most observers, including some Republicans, blame immigration hardliners who will tolerate no compromise on the issue and who have the president’s ear; chief among them are Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and White House advisor Stephen Miller.
The first two days of the shutdown were marked by fingerpointing and attempts to come up with the most memorable label for the crisis. Republicans favored “the Schumer shutdown”; Democrats preferred “the Trump shutdown,” and made reference to a May tweet by the president calling for “a good shutdown” in September.
While the legislators wage a PR battle to see which party will be most hurt by the shutdown, there is no missing the black eye for Trump. It has shredded his image as a deal maker who insisted that he was the man who could fix the mess in Washington. Perhaps more wounding still, the president was forced to miss the party scheduled at his Mar-a-Lago resort that would celebrate a year in office.
The outlines of a deal are clear: a vote on a bill to create some status for the Dreamers, which would also set aside some money for border security. It would also fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a long-standing bipartisan program that provides health care for poor children, the funding for which lapsed last year as Republicans pressed other priorities.
A compromise emerged Monday evening in Washington: Democrats agreed to back the funding bill, which would keep the government funded until Feb.8, in exchange for a promise by McConnell to ensure a vote on the Dreamers in early February. This postpones resolution of the key question, but it buys time for a deal. The question now is whether Senate negotiators can reach an agreement that commands a bipartisan majority in the House — a tough sell for a chamber that prefers a majority of the majority — which the president would sign “because Congress asked him to.”
The posturing and hypocrisy on both sides would be comical if the stakes were not so high. Both parties have adopted language and positions that they disdained during the last shutdown in 2013. While the human costs of a shutdown have been attenuated, uncertainty continues to dominate the Dreamers’ lives.
There are two lessons from this incident. The first is yet another reminder of the weakness of the president, and the danger of relying on him to advance policy. Trump continues to be an unreliable negotiator. All his negotiating partners need to take that to heart. Second, and perhaps more worrisome, is that adoption of the Democrats of the scorched earth tactics employed by the GOP when Obama was president. The Democrats believed in the substance and purpose of government and the need to act responsibly; that can no longer be assured and the U.S. is weaker for it.
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