Leverage and How to Keep a Government Running

(Bloomberg View) -- Let's talk Democratic strategy on bills to keep the government running.

The basic story remains the same as another deadline approaches and another short-term funding extension is being prepared. Democrats have two potential pressure points: If Republicans cannot get a House majority by themselves, then Democrats have a ton of leverage; they can withhold their votes until Republicans agree to some of their agenda items. Meanwhile, on the Senate side, it only takes 41 of the 48 Democrats to kill any bill by filibuster. That, too, gives them a chance to trade their votes for provisions they want -- which include protection for the Dreamers, funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, measures to help the Obamacare markets function, and as much new spending for domestic programs as for military spending.

The limits to the Democrats' influence? To the extent Republicans remain united, House Democrats lose their leverage. And in the Senate, if Democrats do kill a funding bill (either a short-term one or a full fiscal-year version), they risk being blamed for forcing a government shutdown over the objections of majorities in both chambers of Congress. The weapon for House Democrats is extremely effective but depends on Republican disunity; the Senate Democrats' weapon is an unwieldy one, which certainly helps their bargaining position but could easily backfire if used poorly.

What should Democrats do, then, if Republicans once again bring a "clean" continuing resolution to the House and Senate floors -- that is, a bill to keep the government open into January, funded at current levels, without including any of the provisions Democrats want? (As of Thursday morning, House Republicans are attempting a more complicated continuing resolution -- but it's not clear they'll have the votes to move this ahead in the House, or that Senate Republicans would accept it.) 

The real questions have to do, again, with leverage. Do Republicans have the votes in the House? In the Senate, are they willing to shut down the government over, say, immediate funding for CHIP -- and, if so, is there a realistic chance that Republicans would give Democrats greater gains with the government shut down than they would if all of this plays out in January?

As long as Republicans can unite for a clean extension bill, Democrats really don't have much leverage. They'll have to wait until January, or perhaps longer. It's likely that Republicans will eventually accept the need for compromise. After all, that's the only way they can get the increased military spending and other changes that they want. Beyond that, quite a few Republicans want DACA reestablished and CHIP funded (there are probably majorities in both chambers in favor of those Democratic priorities, which makes the job difficult for Republican leadership). 

In the meantime, should Democratic congressional leaders urge "no" votes? Not necessarily. Shutdown showdowns have a fascinating negotiating strategy. Each side has to convince the other that it's willing to fight hard for its priorities ... while at the same time convincing observers that it's the other party that would be responsible for any actual closure of the government. In the first go-round two weeks ago, almost all House Democrats voted against the bill, while in the Senate most Democrats voted yes. We don't know whether that was coordinated in any way, but it actually fits nicely with a strategy of convincing Republicans that Democrats can unite while avoiding any hint of Democratic interest in an actual shutdown. Remember, the only real decision the Democrats had was whether to use a filibuster to shut down the government, and they were right to not take that step. It wouldn't have brought them any closer to their goals. 

I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened if Republicans propose a clean continuing resolution this week. Democrats will be angry: Every day without resolving some of these issues is a day Republicans are winning on them. Unfortunately for Democrats and the groups they're fighting for, there's probably not much they can do yet. They have a good hand (considering they have neither the White House nor a majority in either chamber). But it's going to require patience to play it well, and that won't be easy while their constituents are suffering. 

1. Stéphane Côté and Robb Willer at the Monkey Cage on the tax bill and greed

2. Matthew Dickinson on the tax bill and the health-care bill

3. Jennifer Bendery on the tax bill and Puerto Rico

4. Peter Suderman with a balanced look at the tax bill

5. Nate Cohn looks at the generic ballot question and 2018

6. Will Wilkinson on the tax bill and democracy. I don't agree with all of his points here -- I don't think democracy is about outcomes -- but it's well worth looking at. 

7. My Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson on Trump as an extremely partisan president. In actions, yes, and somewhat surprisingly so for a president who doesn't appear to have the usual constraints that meant Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had little choice but to be partisans. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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