(CNN)In the end, Nancy Pelosi was left with one request.
The House minority leader wanted from Speaker Paul Ryan what Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, got from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a few weeks ago: A scout's honor pledge to allow a future vote on an immigration bill.
After months of public jousting and fruitless negotiations with Republicans and President Donald Trump, Democrats are running out of time -- and options -- in their fight to preserve a program that has protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation. Leadership's unwillingness to gamble on another government shutdown, the minority party's lone meaningful recourse, has left them unarmed and aimless.
Knowing all this, Ryan kept his nerve, reiterating his "sincere" desire to seek an "immigration measure that we can make law," but offering no bold-faced assurances. Democrats, fearful of extending a brief and unrelated shutdown ginned up by Sen. Rand Paul, and enticed by new non-defense spending, wilted. For all the drama of the past 48 hours, 73 of them joined Republicans early Friday morning in voting to send a bipartisan budget deal to the White House.
That raft of defections underlined the frailties in the Democratic caucus, which appears to be operating without a playbook -- or a clear sense of priorities -- as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program unravels ahead of President Trump's March 5 deadline to codify or can the Obama-era program. Whatever leverage Democrats might have claimed a month ago, it is all but gone now.
Instead, they are banking on Republican claims that they too want, as Ryan put it, to "solve this DACA problem."
How did their fortunes turn so sour?
The abandoned shutdown is one place to start. Democrats in late January went to lay down a marker, but within three days were selling a strategic retreat. They simply didn't have the stomach for that kind of legislative warfare.
But it also helps to consider what Republicans have -- majorities in both chambers of Congress -- and what they most wanted: A deal to bust budget caps on military spending while keeping DACA in play as a bargaining chip ahead of broader immigration talks.
They secured the first piece in this week's deal when, as part of a compromise that also included a slate of Democratic desires for billions in new domestic spending, the House and Senate signed off on a nearly $165 billion hike in the defense budget (over two years). Republicans locked it in without giving away anything new on immigration. By disconnecting the two issues, they strengthened an already formidable hand.
It will be up to Senate Democrats to carve out some kind of compromise with their moderate Republican colleagues. True to his word, McConnell plans to open the floor to amendments on a blank slate bill next week. If there are 60 votes for a deal, then a deal there will be. What happens to that still unwritten legislation, should it somehow pass the Senate and come back around to Ryan's House, is a much murkier question.
By holding out on Pelosi this week, the speaker preserved for himself all avenues and, crucially, the option to do nothing at all. He will also operate with the White House as a bulwark against any backlash, having made clear he won't bring anything to the House floor without Trump's blessing. If Trump gives a thumbs up to the (potential) Senate deal, Ryan can reasonably turn to his caucus, who would likely oppose anything Senate Democrats had supported, and insist on a vote.
Without that blessing, though, things might actually get worse for Democrats. Ryan could allow House Republicans to move forward with their own framework and see whether they can either go it alone or attract some Democrats to what would be the only show in town.
If that happens and a separate bill emerges, a House and Senate conference would follow. Based on what we know now, that process would likely produce a watered down version of the standing White House proposal -- which takes a chunk out of legal immigration policies like family reunification (aka "chain migration") and the diversity lottery. That would make for a very difficult decision for Democrats, who, again, would have nowhere else to turn.
Other routes are far more speculative. Strategy is pretty much out the window at this point. It's a game of tactics and, perhaps, nerves.
Congress still has an omnibus spending bill to pass, in late March, so there lies another opportunity to gum up the works to protect DACA, whose recipients might by then be losing their protections at a rate of more than 900 per day. Those scenes -- young immigrants, who willingly gave their information to the government, being pulled out of school and off the job and deported -- could scare wobbly Democrats and nervous moderate Republicans into action. Or not.
The reality is that, barring a longshot deal on Capitol Hill, the fate of DACA and the "Dreamers" will go one of two ways:
1) Washington does what it does best -- and punts. Maybe it's a few months. More likely it is, as Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has discussed, a few years.
2) Trump backs down off his "four pillars" and gives his blessing to a simple bargain, one that most Democrats would sign onto in a heartbeat, that trades some kind of permanent status for "Dreamers" in exchange for money to build his border wall.
The Democrats, for all the tough talk and grassroots energy behind them, now seem destined to be spectators to their own fate.