With Shutdown Looming at Press Time: Emboldened Democrats Take Page from the Hard Right

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., center, walks to speak to the media outside the Capitol after meeting with President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats are taking a page from the playbook of President Donald Trump and hard-line conservatives: Fight for your base and don’t blink.

In forcing a showdown over immigration — and risking a possible government shutdown — Democrats have embraced a confrontational, rule-breaking strategy they once blasted as irresponsible when practiced by the other party. But the Trump-era appears to come with new rules for both sides. Rather than playing it safe in an election year, Democrats are calculating the bigger risk would be missing the moment to challenge a deeply unpopular president and deflating the energy that could drive liberal voters to the polls in November.

“No one wants to conduct themselves in a way that you are running scared and being a milquetoast moderate in a way that dampens the enthusiasm,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

It’s a strategy shift for Democrats, who negotiated repeatedly with Republicans during the punishing Obama-era budget battles. Those showdowns were prompted by conservatives who were swept into Congress during the tea party wave and who refused to compromise on the fiscal issues that motivated their voters.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has frequently employed similar tactics to the tea party, preferring to satisfy his core supporters rather than seek positions backed by a broader swath of Americans. Last week, he rejected a compromise spending bill that addressed Democrats’ top demand — protection for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants facing deportation — because he said it didn’t include enough funding for his long-promised border wall.

As the hours ticked down to Friday’s midnight deadline, the White House and Republican lawmakers argued that Democrats were playing politics and holding government funding hostage over an unrelated issue. It’s the same charge Democrats made against Republicans in 2013, when the GOP shut down the government for 16 days in a bid to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“This is exactly the tactic that they decried four and a half years ago. And yet here we are,” said Brendan Buck, an adviser to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. “I think it’s quite a moment in American politics that Democrats have so quickly embraced what they once called ‘arsonist’ tactics. This is a party moving so hard and fast to the left that it’s almost difficult to process.”

The Democratic strategy comes with risks. While the party has had a string of victories in recent elections, including a state Senate win this week in a Wisconsin district Trump won by 17 points, the

Senate landscape for Democrats in November is perilous. Incumbents are on the ballot in several Republican-heavy states, including North Dakota, Montana and Missouri.

Yet Democrats are confident enough of those senators will hold the line Friday and believe a series of factors have made this the right moment for the party to reject another short-term spending extension. Among them: a feeling that Trump’s stunning comment in a private meeting last week calling for less immigration from “shithole” countries in Africa has put the onus on Republicans to show sympathy for the “Dreamers” — the roughly 700,000 young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Democrats also believe that the party’s willingness to help Republicans pass a short-term spending bill at the end of December, when liberal activists were already pushing for a showdown over immigration, shows the party was willing to negotiate a broader deal and can inoculate lawmakers from charges that they’re simply playing politics.

“We did it for a month,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “At some point it starts to look like the purpose is delay, not to get a deal.”

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who is among the Democrats up for re-election in November, said he couldn’t stomach another short-term bill and blamed GOP leaders for having intentionally “played politics and kicked the can down the road.”

There’s no guarantee that Democrats would ultimately benefit from a shutdown. A Washington Post-ABC News poll out Friday showed 48 percent of Americans pin the blame for a potential shutdown on Trump and Republicans, while 28 percent fault Democrats. And while numerous surveys show the public overwhelmingly supports finding a solution for the young immigrants in the U.S. illegally, a CNN poll also out Friday shows that 56 percent of Americans say approving a budget agreement to avoid a shutdown is more important than continuing the deportation deferral program.

Trump announced in September that he was ending an Obama program that allowed the young immigrants to avoid deportation and legally work. He threw the issue to Congress, calling for lawmakers to reach a solution before March 5.

But the president has sent repeated mixed messages over what legislation he would sign on immigration. Last week, he told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that he would sign a bill that funded the government and protected the Dreamers if it included more money for border security. But when senators brought him that compromise bill, he rejected it.

Democrats say that helped open the door for the party to take a harder line in the shutdown fight.

“It’s now or never,” Fallon said.