California’s two Democratic senators could barely contain their anger after Chuck Schumer cut a deal with Mitch McConnell to reopen the government on Monday — and deal later with the 200,000 Dreamers in their state facing deportation.
“I’m disappointed with a conversation that suggests a false choice: You either fund the government or you take care of these … kids. We can do both,” Sen. Kamala Harris fumed. It would be “foolhardy” to trust McConnell, she said of the majority leader’s promise to take up an immigration bill in the coming weeks.
The Democratic strategy going in was to use their leverage in the government funding fight to help Dreamers, lamented Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “I trust that because the leadership did it this way, that they must know something I don’t,” she said.
The turn of events Monday marked the most serious cracks in the unity Schumer has painstakingly built within his caucus since he became Democratic leader a year ago. After holding almost all Democrats together through fights over the Supreme Court, health care, taxes and even Friday’s vote that shut down the government, Schumer is now under attack from the left and confronting pointed criticisms of his negotiating skill.
His performance resulted in a Democratic-led shutdown — and an agreement with McConnell that provided no guarantee of a new immigration law. But multiple Democratic senators and aides told POLITICO in the aftermath that it might have been Schumer’s only way out: He couldn’t go against the bulk of his left-leaning caucus in fighting for DACA recipients. But he also could not allow the shutdown to drag on for so long that it began hurting his vulnerable incumbents.
“That’s where a majority of caucus was going. So he represented his caucus,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who voted with Republicans on the roll call that shut down the government on Saturday morning.
No Democratic senator suggested that Schumer’s leadership is under any threat after his agreement with McConnell to fund the government through Feb. 8. The deal included a pledge from McConnell to begin debating an immigration bill if no agreement has been reached on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
But progressive senators were visibly miffed by what their leader had just done, even if they did not publicly go after him.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) repeated any question about the spending deal with the answer: “We’ll have a statement.” And asked whether Schumer’s standing has been hurt by the negotiation, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) replied: “I’m not going to get into that right now.”
“I know there’s disagreement in the caucus about this. But both sides understand each other,” Murphy said. “When the immigration debate comes to the floor, we’re going to be united to get these DREAMers the best protection.”
Added Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who opposed Schumer’s deal with McConnell: “He’s doing a great job under very difficult circumstances.”
But liberal groups were furious, threatening in a conference call with progressive senators on Monday to spend money against Schumer and his vulnerable incumbents this fall, according to a person on the call. Those groups put out barbed statements, with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee casting Schumer and supporters of his deal as “weak-kneed.”
“It’s Schumer’s job to lead and keep his caucus together to fight for progressive values, and he didn’t do it,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the activist group Indivisible.
Schumer also faced questions from liberal senators about his decision last week to put President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall on the negotiating table. Schumer responded to them Saturday by pointing to positive news clips as evidence that his position was being received as reasonable by the media, according to two Democratic sources.
And during a Monday gathering with progressives including Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Booker, Schumer faced pointed questions about what is actually going to happen after the new Feb. 8 deadline comes and goes, a source briefed on the meeting said. At one point, Schumer asked those senators what other deal was available for Democrats to take, the source said.
In the end, Schumer found himself under attack from liberals he’s spent months courting. Schumer declined to respond to any criticisms of him on Monday afternoon, but aides said he was at peace with how the conflict with McConnell and Trump had played out.
And he also proved to Republicans he’s more than just a Trump antagonist.
“We’d hoped he’d be the dealmaker,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “He did definitely get spooked months ago on this issue … and by the anti-Trump folks showing up at his house. That’s definitely had an impact on his deal-making abilities. Hopefully we’ll see more [of the kinds of agreements struck Monday].”
McConnell ultimately made a commitment to hold an immigration debate on the Senate floor if a group of senators working on a compromise can’t reach a deal that can get 60 votes. In the view of Schumer allies, the pledge to take up a bipartisan bill, rather than a conservative bill, was an off-ramp from the shutdown worth taking, given McConnell’s vague statements on the matter earlier.
But McConnell was not going to go any further that that. After reviewing polls and the Senate map this year — 10 Democrats face reelection in states that Trump won — McConnell concluded a lengthy shutdown would hurt Democrats more than Republicans, according to a Republican aide. Likewise, the Democratic caucus began sensing quickly that a long shut down over immigration would begin damaging the sympathetic public view of DREAMers, a Democratic aide said.
For Schumer, the shutdown was the culmination of a complex internal Democratic crisis that’s been brewing for months. Since October, a steady march of progressive senators took the position that they would no longer vote to fund the government without protection for young immigrants facing deportation by a March 5 deadline. And in the view of Senate Democrats, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan were dithering on immigration while Trump nixed any bipartisan deal that was floated.
His response to the squeeze was a mixture of the partisan who ran messaging for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm for years, and the centrist-minded dealmaker who works out with Republicans in the Senate gym regularly. Schumer led almost his entire caucus into a vote to shut down the government on Friday and rejected an offer from McConnell on Sunday night that was similar — albeit less firm — than the one he accepted hours later.
“They had to do it, because that’s where their base is right now and they have to prove these threats are serious. I think they had to wave the bloody flag,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
“Sen. Schumer believed in what he was doing. But you can also believe that two plus two equals five,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).
Just two days after the shutdown began with near unanimous Democratic support, Schumer successfully implored most of his members to back his deal with McConnell. Senators and aides said privately that Schumer never stopped searching for a way out of the shutdown — so when he saw what he considered a face-saving deal from McConnell, he had to take it.
Once the shutdown began, he continued to try to get out of the jam even while engaging in hand-to-hand combat with McConnell. On the floor Sunday afternoon, Schumer gloated that #TrumpShutdown was trending on Twitter and #SchumerShutdown was not.
“We’ll work on that,” McConnell replied with a wry smile, according to a source briefed on the conversation.
Speaking with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Monday morning at the gym, Schumer sought to find out what kind of immigration bill McConnell would agree to take up. Alexander told Schumer that he may be majority leader one day, and it would be best for him not to set the precedent of the minority dictating the legislative calendar to the majority, two Republican sources said.
A bipartisan group of senators that began meeting late last week provided the cover that both Schumer and McConnell needed. That group of more than 20 senators convened in Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday hoping to drive a solution to the shutdown.
And though Schumer discussed the outlines of those talks with liberal senators who opposed them, he also quietly blessed the bipartisan working group.
Schumer “was encouraging us to try to keep the discussions going so that we could get a resolution,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats.
By the time progressives met Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Sunday night, they knew their position was eroding, said a Democratic staffer with knowledge of the meeting.
But one hang-up for Democrats was McConnell. Citing a stalled commitment he made years ago to take up a bill to revive the Export-Import Bank and vague recent statements on immigration, Democrats regard McConnell as untrustworthy. They believe he prefers to legislate through partisan broadsides instead of finding common ground.
But the emergence of the moderate groups’ Republicans members — and their private pledges to work together on immigration — was enough to push 33 Democrats across the finish line in support of Schumer, including his entire leadership team.
“I have no trust in the Republican leadership,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Indeed, even those who voted against Schumer’s deal were largely willing to let him off the hook. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in an interview that he would “put the onus all on the GOP.”
“None of us really feel like we can count on a fair immigration vote occurring on the floor of the Senate,” Merkley said, given that McConnell has made other promises “that have never been fulfilled.”
But despite all the Democratic reservations, what mattered most in bringing the shutdown to an end were the two Senate leaders.
“Schumer trusts him,” Feinstein said of McConnell.
John Bresnahan and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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