The congressional agenda for the coming weeks is so chaotic that it makes O’Hare International Airport in a blizzard seem as restful as a Zen retreat.
The calendar is filled with rigid deadlines. Jan. 19 is the date to both fund the government to avert a shutdown and to reauthorize a key provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
On March 5, the executive order will expire to protect Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children) from deportation. In late March, there will potentially be another debt ceiling crisis as well as a new deadline to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.
Yikes. I forgot the 2019 budget, the need for more disaster funding for hurricane-ravaged areas and promised Senate votes on fixes to Obamacare.
Luckily, we live in an era awash in bipartisanship. It’s a time when respect for the other party and the value of legislative traditions are the guiding principles on Capitol Hill.
And, of course, not since Lyndon Johnson have we been blessed with a president so knowledgeable about the subtle movements that accompany the dance of legislation.
OK, back to reality.
Hovering over the winter legislative showdowns is the question of how the Democrats will use their considerable leverage in Congress.
Now that tax cuts — the one cause that animates all Republicans — are in the statute books, Mitch McConnell will be dealing with the reality that a 51-49 Senate majority can be as fragile as a snowflake.
Especially when two retiring Republican senators (Jeff Flake and Bob Corker) make no secret of loathing Donald Trump. And two other GOP senators (John McCain and Thad Cochran) are in fragile health. Pretty soon Mike Pence won’t be able to leave Massachusetts Avenue for fear that his vote will be needed to break a Senate tie.
When it comes to anything with a whiff of controversy, like the debt-ceiling vote, Paul Ryan’s current 26-seat majority is as secure as a bitcoin investment. Whether the threats come from the right-wing Freedom Caucus or northeastern moderates panicked about the 2018 elections, Ryan will be as worried about defections as the North Korean border patrol.
Over the past year, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have adroitly played their weak political hands, papering over Democratic divisions in the name of a united opposition to Donald Trump. But we have now reached a point when binding decisions have to be made on everything from funding the government to protecting the Dreamers from being sent back to countries they no longer remember.
Just say no?
The Democratic base will be tempted to take its lead from a James Bond villain and have its congressional leaders continue to play Dr. No. Certainly, ambitious Democratic senators like Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have calculated that 2020 presidential primary voters will be impressed by their unstinting opposition to anything requested by Donald Trump.
If there is a government shutdown, Trump will, of course, blame it on the Democrats, as if Hillary Clinton were running the country from her secret Deep State command post. But even loyal viewers of Fox News probably will remember that the Republicans control both Congress and the White House.
Still, a strong argument can be made that the Democrats should try to cut deals with the White House. The goal would not be to let Trump wiggle off the hook, but rather to win tangible rewards for providing the Republicans with needed votes on government funding and the debt ceiling.
In such negotiations, the Democrats’ mantra should be: Human beings are more important than money or symbolism.
A prime example is the deal that the president keeps saying he wants — trading statutory protection for the Dreamers in exchange for funding his cherished border wall.
Referring to the initials of the executive order (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) protecting the Dreamers, Trump said in a holiday interview with Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, “I wouldn’t do a DACA plan without a wall. Because we need it. We see the drugs pouring into the country. We need the wall.”
Beginning with the 2015 campaign kickoff when Trump falsely declared that Mexican rapists were pouring across the Rio Grande, the wall has embodied the worst elements of Trumpism. The myth that Mexico could be bludgeoned into paying for the wall represented a prime example of the unreality of the promises made by this former reality show host.
Ever since the Soviets erected in 1961 a barrier separating East and West Berlin, walls have been associated with totalitarian countries rather than confident democracies. And the Trumpian vision of a beautiful solar-powered wall (presumably with Ivanka’s boutiques at the base) doesn’t make the image any prettier.
But if congressional Democrats can win lifelong legal protection for the nearly 800,000 Dreamers in exchange for, say, a $10 billion down payment on the wall, it would be a deal worth making. Sure, the $10 billion would be wasted. But that’s chump change compared to the nearly $1 trillion in giveaways already embedded in the GOP tax bill.
Yes, Trump would chortle that he won the most glorious victory since Gen. George Patton crossed the Rhine. Trump’s triumphalism would be difficult to take. Far worse, though, would be immigration roundups of the Dreamers if Trump petulantly refused to extend the executive order beyond March 5.
Maybe Schumer and Pelosi can protect the Dreamers by backing more funding for border security without resorting to a wall. But if a choice has to be made in the face of a recalcitrant White House, remember that people — the Dreamers — trump money for a metaphorically ugly wall.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.