WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t smile much.
But as the Kentucky Republican sat in his chair on the Senate floor Monday, listening to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announce that Democrats would vote to reopen the federal government, his lips spread into a nearly ear-to-ear grin.
He looked like the cat that had just swallowed the Democratic Party.
What McConnell knew — and what infuriated Democratic activists across the country were just finding out — was that Schumer’s strategy of shutting down the government to force President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans into locking in an immigration deal had failed in epic fashion.
Not only did Schumer come up short of getting a deal to prevent the deportation of “Dreamers” — people brought to this country illegally when they were children — but he divided a Democratic Party that had previously been unified. And he let Trump and McConnell walk away from it all as the clear winners on politics, policy and strategy.
The move immediately drew the wrath of immigrant-rights activists and the party’s left wing.
“It’s official: Chuck Schumer is the worst negotiator in Washington — even worse than Trump,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of the liberal group CREDO. “In getting outmaneuvered by Sen. McConnell today, Chuck Schumer has failed dreamers and let the entire Democratic Party down.”
After a two-and-a-half day shutdown, all Democrats got was an olive branch that more closely resembled a fig leaf: McConnell agreed to extend government funding for only three weeks, not four, and said it is his intention to bring an immigration bill to the floor if a deal can’t be struck before then.
While centrist Democrats were thrilled to end what they saw as an ill-conceived confrontation, liberal Democratic activists’ reactions spanned the spectrum from deflated to furious as the bill moved through Congress Monday afternoon.
“It’s a debacle,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the leading immigrant-rights advocates, when informed of the Senate’s 81-18 vote to move ahead on a stopgap bill to extend government funding without an agreement on Dreamers. “I’m just saddened by it all.”
Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, said Democrats can’t expect to win elections if they back down from a fight every time they take a punch.
“Today’s cave by some Senate Democrats was not only a stunning display of moral and political cowardice, it was a strategically incoherent move that demonstrates precisely why so many believe the Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything,” Chamberlain said. “If you want to know why we lost in 2016 and why a Democratic wave in 2018 is far from guaranteed, despite the deep level of disgust for Donald Trump, look no further than this weak and profoundly disappointing cave from Senate Democrats.”
And many Democrats said they couldn’t trust McConnell’s vague promise to bring up a fix for the Dreamers before a March deadline.
“He did not make a commitment,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., one of several prospective Democratic presidential candidates who voted against re-opening the government.
For some Democrats and most Republicans, a denouement of Democratic defeat was predictable. Still, few leaders have executed the rare double-buckle as quickly or fully as Schumer.
First, the activist wing of the party pushed Schumer to hold government funding hostage to an immigration deal. He bowed to their demands, leading most Democrats to vote against a stopgap spending bill on Friday night.
But once they’d gone over the cliff — voting to shut down the government — many members of his own caucus, including Democrats who are running for re-election this year in states Trump won, started pushing Schumer to back down. They worried about the backlash from voters who care more about their government operating than the fate of the Dreamers. Under duress from that set of senators, Schumer folded again.
“It was pretty evident by Saturday that a bunch of his members were getting nervous, and that as much as he tried to keep them together, they were looking for an out,” said Jim Manley, a former Democratic leadership aide. “The 2018 elections are still going to be a referendum on Trump — and none of this shutdown stuff is going to change that. Democrats live to fight another day.”
And if there’s no deal for the Dreamers and McConnell isn’t ready to bring up an immigration bill in the Senate by Feb. 8, Democrats could reprise their shutdown strategy at that time.
But former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes said Schumer, the rookie Democratic leader, miscalculated against his veteran GOP counterpart.
“They were dealing with someone who has seen this movie before and knew how it was going to play out,” he said.
Some Democratic strategists said Schumer got enough to justify re-opening the government.
“The best strategy was and is to resolve [the Dreamer issue] without the added jumble of other nonimmigration political and policy issues,” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “Getting a commitment from McConnell to do that is a victory for Schumer. Now, the question is, what happens if the Republicans and Trump don’t live up to that bargain and it all breaks down again?”
But Rebecca Katz, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide, saw weakness from her party’s leaders.
“Imagine what Democrats could accomplish if they had a backbone,” she said.