Wall Fight Derails Democrats' Plan to Focus on Campaign Themes
(Bloomberg) -- Democrats won their fight with President Donald Trump over the government shutdown for now, but the all-consuming debate derailed their plans to showcase issues that helped them win a House majority and that they plan to use to set the 2020 agenda.
Even with Friday’s agreement to reopen affected agencies until Feb. 15, Congress and the White House will spend the next three weeks continuing to tussle over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a border wall. Those discussions will keep Democrats’ priorities on the back burner and could trigger a new shutdown if no agreement is reached.
“We’re going to move forward with our legislative agenda, because we can’t afford not to, the country is hungry for us to act,” said Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who’s a new member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “But yeah, it takes a lot of energy to fight just for the basics of keeping government open on one hand and then try to pursue an agenda that voters sent us here to pursue on the other.”
Even though Democrats are off their planned message, they’re benefiting in at least one way from the shutdown: voters are blaming Trump.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Jan. 18-22 found that 49 percent of those polled blamed Trump for the shutdown while 35 percent blamed Democrats in Congress. Public disapproval of Trump rose five percentage points to 58 percent over three months as survey respondents held the president and GOP lawmakers responsible for the shutdown, according to a Jan. 21-24 Washington Post-ABC News poll.
At the top of Democrats’ agenda is a package of government-overhaul measures in a bill called H.R. 1, which 100 candidates said in a letter last year they wanted to be one of the first orders of business. Democrats introduced H.R. 1. on Jan. 3. The House Judiciary Committee announced a Jan. 29 hearing for the legislation moments after the House passed a deal to end the shutdown Friday night.
Even at the committee level, the shutdown has crowded out Democrats’ priorities.
Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said earlier this month that the panel’s first hearings would be on climate change, Obamacare and family separations at the border.
“I had previously announced our first three hearings never believing that this shutdown would still be going on when this committee had a chance to organize,” Pallone said.
Representative Gil Cisneros, a freshman Democrat who won a previously Republican-held seat in California, said he and others in his party want to focus on their campaign issues: protecting people with pre-existing health conditions, enacting gun-control laws and environmental protection measures.
Representative Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat and chairwoman of the Democrats’ campaign arm, echoed that sentiment after the shutdown deal was announced: “The American people sent us here to govern with a purpose -- to bring down the cost of health care, invest in our infrastructure and clean up the corruption in Washington,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”
Before Friday’s agreement, Democrats said they were telling constituents that they’re focused.
“One of the messages I bring back to my community is that we’re working very hard to open the government, but that we’re also working very hard on the issues that brought us here in the first place,” said Representative Chrissy Houlahan, a Pennsylvania Democrat who turned a Republican-held seat blue last November.
But the shutdown also had become a big issue as the impact began rippling through the U.S. economy. Just hours before the agreement to reopen the government was announced, flights were temporarily halted at New York’s LaGuardia Airport because of a shortage of air-traffic control staff who haven’t been getting paid during the shutdown.
Federal employees being forced to work without pay made the shutdown “a kitchen table, pocket book issue for the American people,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
‘For the People’
The H.R. 1 legislation, which echoes the party’s “For the People” campaign theme, would require presidential candidates to release tax returns, restore felons’ voting rights after they complete their sentences and require states to draw congressional district boundaries. It would also expand requirements for independent groups to disclose donors and political expenditures and define banned coordination between super-political action committees and campaigns.
The legislation has been backed by a coalition of outside groups including End Citizens United, a political action committee advocating for an overhaul of campaign fiance laws. Tiffany Muller, the group’s president and executive director, said the bill still has good momentum, but the shutdown has “obviously complicated everything.”
“If there is one piece that the shutdown has really hampered it is the ability to go back to voters and have that really clear message of ‘I came here to fix Washington, we introduced H.R. 1, it’s one of the first things we’re gonna pass, here’s what it does,’” Muller said.
Dead on Arrival
If H.R. 1 passes the House, it’s unlikely to advance in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the legislation is “dead on arrival” and called the bill “a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party” in a Jan. 17 Washington Post op-ed. But drawing attention to bill could boost Democrats, particularly freshmen members up for re-election in districts Trump won in 2016.
The shutdown and planned discussions over border security will also set the stage for future policy negotiations between Trump and the Democratic House. Party lawmakers said they’re concerned Trump will threaten government shutdowns in the future if they succeed in passing funding measures that include party priorities like rebuilding infrastructure and lowering drug prices.
“If the president is willing to shut down the government over $5.7 billion, what is he going to do on a potentially half a trillion dollar” infrastructure package, said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
Kofinis said that the shutdown debate diminishes the prospects of House Democrats, Senate Republicans and the administration working together on major legislation.
“The well has been poisoned. The president has poured gasoline on that poison and lit it on fire,” he said. “The next 18 months going into the next presidential are going to be brutal in terms of dysfunction.”
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