Opinion: It’s Not the Senate That Is Selling Out the Dreamers

The House has always been the problem

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., faced a difficult predicament during the government shutdown. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., faced a difficult predicament during the government shutdown. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 24, 2018 at 5:02am

Two songs, familiar to every baby boomer, summed up Chuck Schumer’s predicament: Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” with the lyric “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which was the odd message blared out at the end of Donald Trump rallies in 2016.

For many Democratic activists, Schumer’s decision to make this the shortest government shutdown since 1990 represented a betrayal. The Senate minority leader seemingly put the re-election interests of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly over the future of the 690,000 Dreamers registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

In Schumer’s defense (and I’m already ducking the rotting rutabagas), the New York senator does not want to always be saddled with the title “minority leader.” More important, it is dangerous in politics to confuse a tactical retreat with the abandonment of principle.

That said, skittish Senate Democrats probably overreacted to a weekend of “Schumer Shutdown” tweets. Heitkamp’s and Donnelly’s initial votes against the Democratic filibuster may have inoculated them against GOP attacks.

As for other on-the-window-ledge Democrats, it is doubtful that there will be many voters in November who go to the polls thinking, “Thank heavens for the Republicans. They never shut down the government. But it was shocking that the Democrats turned off the Giant Panda Cam.”

What now?

It is easy to get caught up in recriminations.

And, yes, you can date the problem with the Dreamers back to Barack Obama’s reluctance to take up immigration early in his first term when he had congressional majorities. Of course, Obama was dealing with the worst economic collapse since the Depression. But when it comes to the current plight of the Dreamers, there is blame enough to go around.

The immediate question is what to do now with possible deportations beginning March 5 of those who registered for DACA. For the Dreamers, who have clean records (otherwise they wouldn’t qualify for DACA) and sometimes have few memories of the countries of their birth, such deportations would be cruel even by the harsh standards of the Trump administration.

The Schumer end-to-the-shutdown spin is predicated on a Mitch McConnell promise to allow a Senate vote on legislation to protect the Dreamers. Or, at least, as McConnell said in a floor speech, it is his “intention.”

Of course, “intention” is one of those hedge words that senators love to use in sentences like “it is my intention to continue to serve the people of this great state and not run for president.”

But in reality, the 51-49 GOP Senate has never been the problem, especially with Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, John McCain and Susan Collins committed to a nonpunitive immigration bill.

When it comes to protecting the Dreamers, Schumer was in a situation akin to a drunk who lost his watch in a dark alley but was searching for it on the main street because “the light is better here.” The Democrats had leverage in the Senate because of the filibuster, but the House has always been the problem on immigration.

Actually, the House would not be such an obstacle if a compromise immigration bill could ever get to the floor for a vote. But the Republicans are slavish devotees to the Hastert Rule — a disgraceful tradition named after a disgraced former House speaker, Denny Hastert.

As long as Ryan will not bring any legislation to the floor that does not have majority support in the GOP caucus, the Dreamers could be held hostage by outrageous demands of House Republicans.

Republican Whip Steve Scalise stressed to reporters Monday that the House majority feels no obligation to consider any Senate-passed immigration bill. Instead, the House Republican idea of an even-steven compromise seems to involve swapping minimal protections for the Dreamers in exchange for the Trump Wall, a sharp 25 percent cut in legal immigration, 10,000 new enforcement agents and a crackdown on cities that do not aid government agents in apprehending immigrants without valid papers.

Ready for occupancy

Negotiating a true immigration compromise might be possible if only the presidency weren’t vacant. Okay, Trump is technically occupying the real estate of the Oval Office (when he isn’t at his own golf clubs). But if Capitol Hill is looking for consistent leadership from the White House — as Schumer discovered to his dismay over the weekend — legislators would do better consulting a Ouija board.

In pure political terms, the Democrats might be well served by allowing House Republicans to deport the Dreamers for the sin of, well, having the wrong parents. Or having the right parents who wrongfully brought them across the border in quest of a better life as Americans.

Depending on the wording of polling questions, backing for the Dreamers runs as high as 8-to-1. The latest Washington Post/ABC News Poll found support for allowing “undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States if they came here a child” running at 87 percent, with 70 percent of adults offering “strong” support for that position.

But unlike the near abstractions that govern most Washington debates (the budget, the national debt), the Dreamers are flesh-and-blood people with lives, families and, yes, dreams.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion in Congress — regardless of party — should be pressing for immediate statutory protections for the Dreamers.

But the congressional leader who should be held responsible for any deportations is not Chuck Schumer or even the devious Mitch McConnell. It is a fellow named Paul Ryan with his gutless plans to adhere to the Hastert Rule.

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