Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s short-term victory

US President Donald Trump was hoping to celebrate his first year in office this week, but instead was bogged down in negotiations with Congress that led to a temporary government shutdown, reports Khaled Dawoud

Trump’s short-term victory
Trump’s short-term victory

The US Congress voted on Monday to end a three-day US government shutdown, approving the latest short-term funding bill as Democrats accepted promises from Republicans for a broad debate later on the future of young illegal immigrants to the US.

The fourth temporary funding bill since October easily passed the Senate and the House of Representatives. President Donald Trump later in the evening signed the measure, largely a product of negotiations among Senate leaders.

The enactment of the bill allowed the government to reopen fully on Tuesday and keep the lights on through 8 February, when the Republican-led Congress will have to revisit the country’s budget and immigration policies, two disparate issues that have become closely linked.

The House approved the funding bill by a vote of 266-150 just hours after it passed the Senate by a vote of 81-18.

Trump’s attempts to negotiate an end to the shutdown with Senate Democratic Party leader Chuck Schumer collapsed on Friday in recrimination and finger-pointing. The Republican Party president took a new swipe at the Democrats as he celebrated the Senate’s pact.

“I am pleased that Democrats in Congress have come to their senses,” Trump said in a statement. “We will make a long-term deal on immigration if and only if it’s good for the country.”

Immigration and the budget are entangled because of Congress’s failure to approve a full-scale budget on time by 1 October last year, just weeks after Trump summarily ordered an end by March to Obama-era legal protections for young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”

The budget failure has necessitated the passage by Congress of a series of temporary funding measures, giving Democrats leverage each step of the way since they hold the votes needed to overcome a 60-vote threshold in the Senate for most legislation.

With government spending authority expiring again at midnight on 19 January, the Democrats withheld their support for a fourth stopgap spending bill and demanded action for the Dreamers.

These roughly 700,000 young people were brought to the United States illegally as children, mainly from Mexico and Central America. They mostly grew up in the United States.

Former president Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, gave the Dreamers legal protections and shielded them from deportation. The Democrats, as a condition of supporting a new spending stopgap, demanded resolution of the uncertain future Trump had created for the Dreamers with his DACA order last year.

But Democratic Party leaders, worried about being blamed for the disruptive shutdown of the government that resulted, relented in the end and accepted a pledge by the Republicans to hold a debate later over the fate of the Dreamers and related immigration issues.

Tens of thousands of federal workers had begun closing down operations owing to the lack of funding on Monday, the first weekday since the shutdown, but essential services such as security and defence operations had continued.

The shutdown undercut Trump’s self-image as a dealmaker who could repair the broken culture in Washington. It forced him to cancel a weekend trip to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and he was about to cancel another high-profile visit to Switzerland to attend an economic meeting at Davos.

The US government cannot fully operate without funding bills that are regularly voted in Congress. Washington has been hampered by frequent threats of a shutdown over recent years as the two parties fight over spending, immigration and other issues. The last US government shutdown was in 2013.

Both sides had tried to blame the other for the shutdown. The White House on Saturday refused to negotiate on immigration issues until the government reopened. And on Monday Trump met separately at the White House with Republican senators who have taken a harder line on immigration and with moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Doug Jones.

Reuters/Ipsos polling data released on Monday showed Americans deeply conflicted about the immigration issue, although majorities in both parties supported the DACA programme.

Some liberal groups were infuriated by the decision to reopen the government. “Today’s cave in by Senate Democrats – led by weak-kneed, right-of-centre Democrats – is why people don’t believe the Democratic Party stands for anything,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

For Jovan Rodriguez of Brooklyn, New York, a Dreamer whose family had come from Mexico when he was three years old and then settled in Texas, the latest development was just more of the same.

“Why do we have to wait – again? It’s like our lives are suspended in limbo,” he said. “And they have been for months. I don’t trust the Republicans and I don’t trust [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell with just a promise. That’s not good enough anymore,” he added.

“It’s irresponsible of everyone in Congress not to pass something,” Rodriguez said. 

After news of the spending bill had circulated, some Dreamers and their supporters briefly blocked the entrance to Disneyland in California. Marches and civil disobedience were planned in Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington and elsewhere.

Democratic lawmakers had initially vowed to oppose any bill to fund the government without an agreement to restore the DACA protections. But Republicans refused to budge, instead tying the spending bill to a programme favoured by Democrats that provides healthcare to poor and working-class children.

“Our members, including my brother Jonathan, are in greater danger today because of the cowardice of US Senators,” activist Cristina Jimenez, executive director of the United We Dream group, said in an emailed statement.

The leader of the Senate Democrats, senator Schumer, said on Twitter that he believed he would have enough votes to bring a deal on DACA to the Senate floor and to pass it.

Schumer said he expected McConnell to honour his promise to open debate on the issue. “If he does not honour our agreement, he will have breached the trust of not only the Democratic senators but also the members of his own party as well.”

Activists said they planned to make their feelings known at the ballot box, targeting Republicans who have railed against illegal immigration as well as moderate Democrats who voted for Monday’s deal.

“We will be organising voters, the people who will bring the consequences,” Adrian Reyna, 26, said.

An Oakland, California, resident who was brought to the United States from Mexico at age 11, Reyna said he had started to work for the passage of legislation to protect fellow Dreamers during his student days at the University of Texas.

Any legislation to protect Dreamers, even if it makes it through the Senate, could easily stall in the more conservative House of Representatives, unless Democrats manage to win back seats in the 2018 elections and exert more pressure, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst with the University of Virginia.

The headwinds scare Diego Corzo, a 27-year-old who has built a successful real-estate business in Texas but worries it could all be taken away. “I will be living under a lot of stress, a lot of uncertainty and fear, that everything that I worked so hard to accomplish can be gone,” Corzo said by telephone.

By escaping the government-shutdown drama without losing face, Trump can claim a short-term victory. But the truce has only delayed the most fateful dilemma he has yet to face in his presidency on the issue that powered his political rise: immigration.

At the height of the shutdown drama, Trump made no attempt to sell a bipartisan consensus to protect recipients of the expiring DACA programme to conservative Republicans, even, Democrats say, when he was offered a reciprocal promise of funding for his promised border wall with Mexico.

The breakthrough revealed a growing bipartisan constituency for an immigration deal in the Senate, but any measure, even if it funds Trump’s border wall, may be dead on arrival in the House unless it draws full-throated presidential support.

“Ultimately, the president is going to need to get on board in order for the House to vote on it,” Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said on Monday. “The House, much more so than the Senate, relies on the backing of the president.”

Trump spent his entire first year in office piling up political capital with his most fervent supporters. The question now is whether he will be willing to spend it on an issue that hardline activists may see as giving amnesty to illegals.

Many Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, believe that Trump in his heart wants to spare DACA recipients from deportation. But to make that happen, the president will need to take a stand that could put him at odds with sectors of his political base who flocked to him precisely because of his tough line on immigration in 2016.

If there is one thread running through his one-year presidency, it is Trump’s desire to avoid upsetting his base. Indeed, with an approval rating below 40 per cent, such solicitousness is an existential issue for the president.

Though the polls have consistently shown that even a majority of Trump voters want DACA recipients to stay, the president appears to be squeamish about throwing himself into the fray.

“When you sit with the president, you can see that he really wants to do it,” Schumer said on Saturday. “But then a few hours later, because of the right-wing pressure, he backs off.”

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