For months, Democrats promised to use their leverage on government spending to protect young immigrants at risk for deportation after President Donald Trump canceled the program. More recently, they have demanded Congress pass universal background checks for gun buyers in the wake of another deadly school shooting.
Now, with Congress less than two weeks from a funding deadline, Democrats are showing little willingness to corner Republicans on those issues.
Their lack of appetite to provoke another showdown represents a shift after two previous fights resulted in brief government shutdowns and risks alienating the party's liberal base crucial in midterm elections. But several events have sapped the party's resolve. Moderate Democrats flinched after a three-day January shutdown fought over immigration; court decisions have left Trump's cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in legal limbo; and many Democrats are quietly eager to pass the next spending bill and lock in more money for key agencies.
"The current predicament illustrates how you really only had one bite at the apple of taking a stand over the funding of the government on this [DACA] issue," said Brian Fallon, a Democratic consultant who is close to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., "The previous attempt was either going to be successful, or this gambit was going to fall apart, and what's happened is it has fallen apart."
Congressional leaders are now hashing out a $1.3 trillion "omnibus" spending package ahead of a March 23 deadline. Despite the lack of resolution on DACA and no clear path forward on gun control after a Feb. 14 shooting left 17 dead inside a Florida high school, party leaders are brushing off suggestions of a fresh showdown.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who delivered a record-breaking eight-hour floor speech on the DACA issue ahead of the last spending deadline, has said neither a DACA extension nor a gun-control package "has to be part of" the spending legislation but could instead pass in separate bills that Democrats have little power to force through the Republican-controlled Congress. And House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the spending bill "needs to be considered on its own merits, and then we ought to move ahead on DACA."
Instead of delving into that fight, Democrats appear trained on battles happening within the confines of the spending bill itself — where they feel they are on firmer political ground trying to fend off what they consider to be Republican overreach on controversial policies.
On immigration, for instance, while there is little stomach to push DACA, there is an emerging scuffle over whether Congress will grant additional funds to the Trump administration to beef up border security, fund more immigration enforcement officers and increase the number of detention beds for immigrants who have been apprehended.
Democratic leaders and immigrant advocates appear to be united behind a strategy of bowing to political reality and setting aside the DACA fight for now to defang what they call the "deportation machine."
"I don't think anyone in Washington believes that they will be willing to withhold their votes over DACA on another spending bill," said Angel Padilla, policy director for the activist group Indivisible. "But we're hoping that they make it clear to Republicans that there are red lines on enforcement activities."
Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus leaders last week sent a letter to top congressional leaders, provided to The Washington Post by a Democratic aide, calling on them to "reject any increased funding for [the Department of Homeland Security's] wasteful and harmful enforcement system." And Hoyer, in a statement Friday, called on Republicans to "stop insisting on poison pill policy riders, such as funding for President Trump's border wall, more detention beds, and increased interior enforcement."
The pivot comes a month after Democrats splintered on a budget bill that delivered $151 billion in additional funding to domestic agencies but left DACA unaddressed. Less than two days after Pelosi delivered her eight-hour speech, 73 Democrats broke ranks and joined Republicans to approve the deal. In the Senate, already cowed by the fizzled shutdown, 35 of 46 Democrats voted for it.
The pending omnibus will now dole out that increased funding to specific agencies and programs, funding them through Sept. 30.
"Democrats got a lot of what they wanted, and immigration has not elevated itself to that rarefied top tier where Democrats across the board are willing to go to the mat," said one Democratic aide who closely follows immigration issues and spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.
On guns, there has been growing public pressure for action by Congress since the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, and Democrats have previously engaged in dramatic steps on the gun issue, notably the June 2016 House sit-in that followed the deadly attack on an Orlando nightclub. But that pressure has not yet been trained directly on the spending bill.
According to a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss talks, Democrats are pushing for repeal of the Dickey Amendment, a provision dating to 1996 that has been interpreted as preventing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence as a public health issue. That fight has the backing of major organizations advocating new gun controls but has been waged quietly, the aide said, to avoid provoking a public fight with gun-rights advocates.
"Because of the gun lobby, Americans are effectively blocked from knowing even the scope of our gun violence problem, let alone the possible solutions to it," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety." This shouldn't be controversial - freeing up funds for basic research and shedding sunlight would only help."
Some Democrats are pushing to wage these fights out in the open, even as party leaders believe they can achieve better results — and play better politics — by avoiding a high-profile confrontation.
"The caucus is unified in insisting that we deal with gun violence and we deal with the Dream Act, so I think everything tactically is still on the table right now," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. "The outrage is growing in the country that we have almost universal consensus for a universal background check, and nothing's happening, and we have to stop acting like a failed state. "
But another obstacle to Democrats hoping for action on immigration and guns are defensive battles over other provisions in the spending bill where Republicans are hoping to advance conservative priorities now that they have control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.
"We assume they're going to need Democratic votes, and we're trying to do the best we can, using any ounce of leverage we have, to work on the issues we care about," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a senior Democratic appropriator.
One brewing partisan fight concerns the perennial flash point of abortion politics. The parties are sparring over language pertaining to federal family-planning grants, as well as Republican policy provisions that would block funding for health-care providers that perform abortions, allow health-care providers to opt not to perform procedures they find morally objectionable and bar funding for scientific research using fetal tissue.
House Republicans are rejecting a Senate-crafted compromise that seeks to prevent the Trump administration from changing the rules for awarding family-planning and teen pregnancy-prevention grants to favor groups that advocate sexual abstinence over other groups, including Planned Parenthood. Democrats are pushing to preserve that compromise in the final bill.
"I've consistently made clear that undermining women's health and expanding restrictions on women's access to the full range of reproductive health care — including at trusted providers like Planned Parenthood - is a complete nonstarter in our negotiations in Congress," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services.