Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin has spent the last six months attempting to do the impossible: find a solution inside the US Capitol to an immigration quagmire.
Standing on a marble staircase just off the Senate floor, he lamented Thursday that one of his worst legislative fears had come true: after a brief shutdown over immigration, fits and starts of negotiations with the White House and more than one bipartisan bill, Congress would leave for the Easter recess without enshrining in law a program that has given individuals who entered the US illegally as children a chance to live, work and be educated in the United States without fear of deportation.
“We are one court decision away from hundreds of thousands of young people being deported,” Durbin said on the floor as he attempted to force a vote on a bill to protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Donald Trump chose to end last year but is in limbo in the judicial system.
The nuances, specificities, and friction points vary from issue to issue, but the ultimate reality is the same: While public support for fixing immigration and changing the country’s gun control laws is high, members across the Capitol admit that Congress is unable – and at times unwilling – to lead social change.
The body – slow and precise – doesn’t act on moments of outrage, marches or walk outs. And while Congress was arguably not designed to react emotionally to the country’s problems, the inaction on big-ticket items can give some constituents the impression that the Legislative Branch is not being responsive to its constituents. It instead waits, and at times, hopes, that the courts, the President and the state houses will do the work for them.
“My philosophy is very simple,” said Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia. “Leaders must lead and we’re not leading.”
But Trump also complained about how Congress operates Friday, as he signed a $1.3 trillion spending package.
“I looked very seriously at the veto,” Trump said at the White House after signing the bill. “I was thinking about doing the veto, but because of the incredible gains we’ve been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.”
Similarities between guns and immigration
Immigration wasn’t the only thing left undone.
Congress left Washington in the early hours of Friday morning with a long list of items left unfinished. Even their most basic role – funding the government – had taken the form of a monstrous $1.3 trillion spending package that they voted on just a little more than 24 hours after the 2,200-page bill was released.
“This whole budget process, it really is an embarrassment,” Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy said. “I’ve got a beagle and he drags stuff into the backyard every now and then and hides it under the porch. This looks like something my beagle’s been keeping under the porch for about three days. It just makes no sense.”
Congress also left without passing legislation aimed at lowering health care insurance premiums after partisan disagreements over abortion-restriction language bogged down a near win. They also left without engaging in a serious floor debate on guns despite overwhelming public calls for one. Instead – after a gunman in Parkland, Florida killed 17 people at a high school – Congress agreed to tuck a few modest proposals inside the spending bill: funding school safety programs and incentivizing agencies to enter more data into the country’s gun background checks system.
If the country wanted a robust debate on guns, they got some behind-the-scenes negotiations, a side-effect members say of the tendency in Washington to legislate while always having one eye on the next election.
“We’re much more risk averse than we have been in the past,” Durbin said.
It’s not to say Congress does nothing every time. But, members lament – despite some wins on banking legislation and sex trafficking in recent weeks – Congress isn’t in a position to tackle big problems – at least on a bipartisan basis.
On party line votes, Republicans have been able to accomplish goals.
After failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last year, Republicans in the House and Senate passed a massive tax bill by Christmas that slashed the corporate tax rate, wiped out some loopholes and lowered taxes for many individuals, too.
But those big-ticket items had to be done using an arcane process known as reconciliation, a kind of legislative short cut that allowed the Senate to pass the bill with just a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes, meaning they didn’t need a single Democratic vote.
The Trump factor
Members have their own answers as to what is holding them back from sometimes even debating – not to mention solving – some of the country’s most contentious issues. Members blame arcane Senate rules, leadership, polarization, fear, outside groups, long memories and short tempers.
A spending bill was stalled in the Senate Thursday for hours, for example, because of a decades-old rivalry in Idaho where sitting senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho, objected to a advancing a spending bill because it renamed a wilderness area for a late political rival.
But members also blame Trump.
“It’s tough. You just don’t know where he’s going to be. You don’t know if you can rely on what you hear on one day. Is it going to change the next day? That makes it tougher,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona who will retire at the end of the year. “Not all the blame is his, we can still bring these things up. … My biggest gripe right now is that we defer too much to the President.”
Never was that clearer than on Friday morning when Trump left Capitol Hill scrambling after tweeting he was mulling vetoing the spending bill Congress had just stayed up late to pass the night before. He eventually signed the bill Friday afternoon.
But Trump’s inconsistencies are especially damaging for Congress when it comes to the social issues, the ones that are as much about cultural identity for Republican voters as they are about policy. On things like guns and immigration, it was always going to be Trump who could make the difference. He – unlike no other lawmaker in Congress – could stake out new positions and challenge traditional GOP orthodoxy, but he’d have to decide to spend some of his political capital as well as his time and focus.
On guns, Democrats said the President had squandered an opportunity.
Emerging from a bipartisan, televised meeting with Trump in February, they were downright elated. For one hour on live national television, Trump defied the National Rifle Association, called for expanding background checks, entertained Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein as she urged debate on an assault weapons ban, called out Republicans for cowering to the National Rifle Association and gave the House’s Majority Whip Steve Scalise a dose of political reality that his idea to attach a background check fix bill to a conceal-carry reciprosity bill didn’t stand a chance in the US Senate.
Days and a few meetings with the NRA later, Trump stopped pushing so hard for those reforms.
“I’m frustrated, but not shocked,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been a leader pushing for gun overhauls in Congress since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. “It felt like the President was getting a little bit out far ahead of his skis in that meeting, and I didn’t know walking out of that meeting that the NRA was coming in for another meeting, untelevised that night. That clearly changed the dynamic very quickly.”
Immigration solution continues to elude Congress
On immigration, it’s been a similar story.
Trump ran on the promise of a deportation force and a Mexico-financed border wall. His base doesn’t question his allegiance to the rule of law and they trust him in a way they never trusted President Barack Obama to secure the border. If anyone could give the Republican Party cover on immigration, it was Trump. Democrats had hoped that unique position would give Trump room to cut a deal on DACA.
Instead, what they found was –in the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer – working with Trump was like “negotiating with Jell-O.”
“I think there is a real fear amongst a large number of my Republican colleagues to cross the President, and yet the President’s position on a lot of these issues is always a moving target,” said Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.
Republicans blame Democrats for being intransigent and walking away from opportunities to add DACA into the spending bill, but Democrats say it’s Trump they couldn’t trust.
Members on Capitol Hill often use shorthand to describe the two versions of Trump they know: “Tuesday Trump” vs “Thursday Trump,” a reference to two separate meetings Trump held with members of Congress in the span of a few short days back in January. In one, Trump signaled in a televised meeting an openness to finding resolution on DACA. In another, he privately rejected a bipartisan deal and referred to African countries as “shitholes.”
In February, the administration rejected a second bipartisan attempt. This time, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed the Senate to debate the issue. In the end, none of the proposals passed. The one with the most votes – 54 – included a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA recipients in exchange for $25 billion in border security. It was cobbled together by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who’d negotiated the compromise over a hours-worth of meetings and Girl Scout cookies in Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ office.
Just hours after they announced it, the Trump administration blasted it with statements, tweets and an all-out campaign to stop it before it hit the floor.
“I think the administration lost a great opportunity to get wall funding, take care of the DACA recipients. They overreached and they lost so we’re going to have another shot at this when the court rules, and if you overreach, you’re going to lose,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Immigration advocates like Juan Escalante, a DACA recipient and communications manager at America’s Voice, said it’s been hard to sit back and watch Congress wait for Trump while he waits anxiously to see if they’ll be resolution.
“Unfortunately, the people who are elected to represent our interests were waiting for the President to tell them how to do their job,” he said.
Congress needs deadlines
In the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the mood was different for a brief period on Capitol Hill. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, appeared on a CNN town hall and confessed he was rethinking past positions on guns.