On Friday night, with the federal government on the brink of a shutdown, the floor of the U.S. Senate was a hive of activity: groups of Republican and Democratic senators huddled, talking and negotiating animatedly, with some shuttling back and forth between their party’s leaders in the hopes of securing an 11th hour deal.
In the middle of the floor’s biggest scrum, as the C-SPAN cameras rolled: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who stood among a dozen senators as they spent the wee hours of Friday night on Congress’ center stage, negotiating to avoid a shutdown.
That scene was an sign of things to come for Klobuchar: when the Senate floor talks sputtered and the government shutdown took effect at 12:01 AM on Saturday, Minnesota’s senior senator emerged as a key player in negotiations to reopen the government.
At the onset of the crisis, it appeared as if there could be an extended stalemate in Washington: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, backed by the vast majority of his caucus, made it clear Democrats would not accept any legislation to fund the government that did not address the status of 800,000 undocumented youth, known as the Dreamers, whose lives hung in the balance after President Donald Trump terminated the program that permitted them to remain in the country.
Over the next 60 hours, Klobuchar and 20-some Republican and Democratic senators calling themselves the Common Sense Coalition convened in cramped Capitol offices to develop a framework for ending the shutdown, and ultimately, they pushed a bill to fund the government through February 8, accompanied by assurances from GOP leadership that they would put a bill on the floor to address the Dreamers.
On Monday afternoon, the Senate overwhelmingly approved that plan. Klobuchar, who often sings the virtues of bipartisanship and common ground, was touting the central role of this Common Sense Coalition in bridging the divide in the Senate.
The end of the shutdown appeared to be a vindication of Klobuchar’s carefully crafted brand of politics. In the vote’s aftermath, though, many progressives howled at what they saw as an epic collapse of political will by Senate Democrats, and castigated congressional supporters of a deal that they believe entrusts the fate of 800,000 young people with Mitch McConnell — and liquidates any leverage the Democratic minority had.
Though a crisis has been averted for now, another one looms just two weeks away — and how it unfolds could have significant consequences for Klobuchar, whose fortunes may now be linked to the deal she helped to broker.
Seeking a path forward
On Friday, progressives and immigrant advocates lauded Democrats for holding the line for the Dreamers: 44 of them voted against advancing the continuing resolution that Republicans put on the floor on Friday night. That measure would have appropriated money for the federal government through February 16, and extended funding for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, which helps nine million U.S. children access health insurance, for six years.
Though Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program Trump terminated, is not slated to expire until March, Democrats pushed hard to include a legislative solution for the Dreamers as part of any spending deal. But an immigration bargain collapsed with just days to go before government funding ran out, and Democrats largely did not trust GOP promises that DACA would be dealt with later on.
Shortly after the last-minute continuing resolution failed to reach the 60-vote threshold to advance, the shutdown took effect, and both sides plunged into finger-pointing to assign blame for the crisis. In an interview with MinnPost on Monday, Klobuchar says that the basis for a bipartisan working group to end the shutdown formed quickly, as ten members of the group were veterans of the 2013 government shutdown.
As both parties tried to win the war of public opinion over the weekend, Klobuchar says that the group — sometimes 15 senators, sometimes more than 20 — quietly met around the Capitol for several hours at a time on Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, a group met for a few hours in Klobuchar’s smaller annex in the Capitol building to continue working out a way forward.
The New York Times, which reported on the group’s makeup, found that the Democratic contingent was largely made up of centrist members and those up for re-election this fall in states won by Trump. The Republican contingent included the GOP’s most dovish voices on immigration, like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, and the party’s most liberal senator, Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
Klobuchar said the meetings were marked by cordiality and camaraderie. (CNN reported that Collins employed a “talking stick” strategy to moderate the group’s discussions.) “We went back and forth and back and forth to other members of the caucus and to leadership with ideas,” Klobuchar says. “The idea was to set up a process whereby we’d get a regular vote on a bill.”
Ultimately, Klobuchar, grinning alongside senators like Collins, took a victory lap on Monday, claiming that the group played a central role in moving the Senate toward a package to fund the government in the short term, while laying the groundwork for the GOP to hold a vote on DACA before the program expires — the key concern for Democrats. On Monday afternoon, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve those terms, by a margin of 81 to 18. (Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith were among 33 Democrats to vote yes.)
“This is the way forward,” Klobuchar said. “We had not had that commitment before firmly to move forward on DACA. The add-in here is that we, because of this group, have much more Republican interest than we had before, that they can see the light as well.”
Criticism incoming from the left
To many in the left wing of the Democratic Party, however, their senators’ willingness to accept this deal and put an end to the shutdown constituted a total betrayal of the Dreamers and of Democratic Party values — and underscored what they believe is the spinelessness of Washington Democrats.
Progressive activist groups, and progressive senators, spent Monday relentlessly criticizing Senate Democrats, particularly Schumer, for reopening the government in exchange for murky promises on DACA from Republicans. They envision a number of ways that a solution for the Dreamers could fall apart — from the House refusing to take up a compromise to Trump opposing it — and argued Democrats were naive in taking the deal, or were just desperate to get out of the shutdown bind.
To congressional aides and activists working the issue on Capitol Hill, Klobuchar was one of the key figures pushing Democrats on the framework the Senate approved on — if not the key figure.
According to Murshed Zaheed, political director of progressive organizing unit CREDO, Klobuchar showed a “shameful” lack of backbone in her role in the shutdown talks. “I can’t imagine the progressive heart of Minnesota, the state of Paul Wellstone, is going to be happy about it,” he said.
Klobuchar is often mentioned as a possible candidate to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020, and Zaheed noted that the other likely candidates currently serving in the Senate — Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders — all voted against reopening the government on Monday.
In a statement after the vote, Harris — a freshman from California — summed up the position. “I refuse to put the lives of nearly 700,000 young people in the hands of someone who has repeatedly gone back on his word,” she said. “I don’t believe [McConnell] made any commitment whatsoever. And I think it would be fool-hearted to believe that he made a commitment.”
Echoing that point, Javier Morillo, president of the Twin Cities’ Service Employees International Union and a prominent local voice on immigration issues, criticized Klobuchar for her role in the shutdown talks and entrusting the Dreamers’ fate with McConnell.
“I would like nothing more than to have to apologize to Sen. Klobuchar in a few weeks and admit that her strategy to take Mitch McConnell at his word worked,” Morillo told MinnPost. “Right now, it is hard to be hopeful when we are asking Dreamers to believe someone who made the exact same promise in December.”
“I can’t imagine why Democrats want to own this,” he said. “If Republicans are intent on deporting Dreamers, stop giving them cover.”
Democrats’ ‘best bet’
After the House of Representatives voted later on Monday to approve the Senate plan, President Trump signed the spending bills into law, ending the shutdown and its attendant drama — for now. Funding for the government is scheduled to run out on February 8, giving Congress roughly a dozen days to move on immigration, not to mention an agreement to appropriate funds through the new fiscal year, something it has punted on multiple times since last fall.
Klobuchar was confident that Monday’s vote was the first step in ensuring these items, from DACA to appropriating funds for the military and federal programs, can move forward. Just minutes after the Senate voted on the CR, she acknowledged the emerging criticism from her left, but maintained that she took the path forward that put Democrats in the best position to negotiate on these issues.
“The best bet is to get a strong vote in the Senate on Dreamers, and that puts pressure on the House,” Klobuchar said, arguing that Democrats did not give up any leverage by putting the shutdown to an end without any immediate resolution for Dreamers.
“We obviously have issues to deal with, including the long-term budget, and we felt it was the best way there. There was literally no momentum to get a Dreamers bill until this weekend. Now, there is momentum in the Senate.”
But immigration advocates and progressives believe Klobuchar has gambled here: if this deal does not lead to the passage of legislation to grant some kind of legal status to undocumented youth, there will be a lot of anger and frustration toward the members of the Common Sense Coalition.
Activists will remember that, CREDO’s Zaheed said, if Klobuchar moves forward with a 2020 presidential run. “For anyone with viable aspirations for 2020, this discussion is going to come up,” he said. “Were you there for us when it mattered? Not only was Klobuchar not there, she actively undermined the movement.”
“I think this is essentially akin to Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war vote in 2002,” he continued. “A total and complete betrayal of the Democratic base and the core convictions of the party.”
Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College, said Klobuchar did not endear herself to the progressive base with her shutdown negotiating, but suggested she may have burnished her reputation as a dealmaker who looks for common ground with Republicans.
“She understands that there’s a lot of problems with the shutdown strategy if you’re a Democrat,” he said. “You shut down the government when you have a realistic chance of an important accomplishment. That has to be a part of her thinking.”
“Her style is not personally polarizing. She’s looking for ways forward,” Schier continued. “But all the problems that led to these differences are going to be back. The question is, what else can she do to move forward in such a challenging environment?”