The Senate will take two votes Thursday to reopen the federal government and end the longest shutdown in history. Both votes are expected to fail. The shutdown will continue.
The pageantry of failed flooring has become one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's calling cards in the Senate over the past few years. They've been a potent tool to defuse awkward standoffs and to navigate stalemates. It used to be a failed bill on the Senate floor signaled by weak leadership, but McConnell has used it to its tactical advantage in a highly polarized Washington.
McConnell has used this gambit before high-pressure situations. Some Republican lobbyists have called it a "show a body" strategy: holding votes you know will fail in order to break the deadlock over a given issue.
As Vox reported during the contentious health care debate:
Observers in Washington think the Senate is preparing to take a failed vote that would bring about seven-year quest to repeal and replace Obamacare to a spectacular but definitive end. 19659006] It's the "show them a body" strategy.
"I think the destination is already set. But what the path is? ”One Republican healthcare lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, told me. "They have to be able to show the body of a body, to say that they tried and failed."
Now is a logical time for McConnell to call this play. Four weeks into the shutdown, Senate Republicans have been unwilling to move anything without Trump's $ 5 billion for the border wall, and Democratic leaders are making no headway in their talks with the president. Democrats have been beating up McConnell for not voting on the government. Now they're going to get one – even if it won't have the desired effect.
Failed votes aren't exactly productive legislating, but they are still useful for Senate leadership because they give the appearance of work being done and force a reset once a legislative path is blocked.
What are the votes the Senate is about to take?
McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer negotiated a deal this week on two proposals Thursday:
- President Trump's proposal he announced Saturday, which would find the government while also providing billions of dollars for border security and temporary protections for DACA recipients
- A temporary government funding bill to find the government at existing levels – with no immigration strings attached – which would reopen the government until February 8. A corresponding version of this bill has already been passed by the Democratic House.
Both bills would need 60 votes to advance. But there are many Republicans joining Democrats to pass a clean bill, and there are few Democrats willing to back Trump's wall.
So what's the point? Senators will get a public opportunity to release their frustrations by voting to open the government and McConnell will have shown Democratic leaders and President Trump that neither course has the necessary support in the Senate right now.
Politico Playbook explained the objective of the "This is a pressure-valve release, or sort." It is not actually intended to end the shutdown.
McConnell has "showed them a body" before
We saw the same drama play out twice before, once on Obamacare repeal in 2017 and once during the earlier government shutdown over DACA and the wall last January.
At that first instance, the Obamacare repeal debate was already clearly in trouble. Yet McConnell kept moving towards a vote, despite having a clear path to getting 50 votes (that bill was operating under special rules that only required only one plan). He seemed set on holding a vote, even if all the show was that none of the existing repeal bills could pass.
The eventual vote went almost according to plan, though McConnell came closer to the health care bill out of the Senate than most people expected. Over a few days, the Senate also failed votes on a repeal-and-replace plan, a clean repeal bill, and a "skinny" repeal bill. The last one nearly managed to pass – McConnell had the proven support none of the other bills had the necessary support, leaving the "skinny" bill as the only viable alternative – but John McCain stopped it with his infamous thumbs-down.
The strategy led to that spectacular flameout on the Senate floor, but it also added a note of finality to the months-long health care debate. McConnell and the rest of the Senate moved on to tax reform in the following months.
The same story played out a few months later. Senate Democrats shut down the government in January 2018 to try to force a permanent fix for DACA recipients, whose legal status was at risk due to the administration. The president proved to be an unreliable negotiator, but Democrats wanted some kind of concession to order to reopen the government.
What they ended up getting was another "show them the body" moment. McConnell agreed not to bring up any specific immigration bill but rather to "open and fair" floor debate on immigration as long as Democrats did not shut down the government again. In early February, four varying immigration bills were put up for a vote. Each one ended up failing
Once again, the Senate is preparing to do so on a big issue
The ploy had served McConnell's purposes. The government reopened that January. The president was protected from an embarrassing comeback if his own plan had failed while a more migrant-friendly version. Both sides realized they didn't actually have enough support for their positions on anything productive on immigration, so they just moved on – until the latest immigration standoff led to yet another shutdown, one that has not been resolved.
Now we are set to do the same thing on Thursday. Senators will get to vote, but if both spending plans fail as expected, President Trump will be shielded from needing to issue a veto that keeps the government shut down. The votes have been resolved by the shutdown, in other words, but they might defuse the tension for a few days and give Republicans a chance to regroup.
It might sound strange, but these days, it's just how the Senate works.