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The shutdown: Why it happened, who’s to blame, and where we go from here

Starting after midnight on Friday, the federal government shut down for the first time in five years.

As of Monday morning, the government remains shut down, with an early afternoon vote looming in the Senate to break the impasse.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

For the first time in five years, the U.S. federal government has shut down: Congress could not agree on a deal that would keep the government funded while reconciling differences between Republicans and Democrats on other issues, chiefly immigration.

Funding for the government expired as last Friday turned to Saturday, after a Republican-backed resolution to fund the government for another four weeks fell flat late Friday night in the U.S. Senate.

Lawmakers spent the weekend pointing fingers at each other and attempting to stick the blame for the shutdown on the other party. Meanwhile, some senators and representatives have been negotiating behind closed doors about a way forward, while President Donald Trump has largely remained on the sidelines at the White House, firing off angry tweets.

As of Monday morning, the government remains shut down, with an early afternoon vote looming in the Senate to break the impasse.

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Here’s your rundown of why the shutdown happened, how it happened, and what it all means going forward.

Why did the government shut down?

This government shutdown has its roots in two things: Congress’ inability to secure a long-term deal to fund the government for the new fiscal year, and Trump’s decision to terminate a Barack Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that provides legal status to the roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, sometimes referred to as Dreamers.

Since last summer, Congress has passed four so-called continuing resolutions, stopgap measures that fund the government until lawmakers agree on a long-term appropriations package. The latest one set a deadline of January 19, giving lawmakers the first weeks of the new year to work out a deal.

On Capitol Hill, a spending bill is the closest thing to a sure bet there is — which gives an opportunity for the minority party to use some leverage and try to advance policy priorities that might have otherwise foundered.

That’s where Trump’s decision on DACA comes in: last September, the administration announced it would terminate the program, throwing the Dreamers’ status in the U.S. in limbo. But Trump gave a six-month window for the termination to take effect, giving Congress a chance to decisively address the status of the Dreamers through legislation.

But Democrats weren’t confident that congressional GOP leadership would take up stand-alone legislation to provide a solution to the DACA situation. A bill to extend legal status to undocumented youth, called the DREAM Act, failed in 2010, with Republicans broadly opposed. Though opinion polls show that the American public overwhelmingly favors offering legal status to the Dreamers — and many Republicans are open to the idea — the issue remains politically fraught in the GOP. Republicans are wary of alienating an energized base of Trump supporters with hard-line immigration views by supporting something that could be framed as amnesty.

With a must-pass spending bill looming, Democrats saw an opportunity to advance a solution on DACA. Through the first weeks of January, that was on the table: Republican and Democratic negotiators were discussing an immigration compromise attached to a spending deal, in which Democrats would get what they wanted on DACA, while Republicans would secure increased funding for “border security,” possibly including billions of dollars for the president’s much-touted border wall.

But talks broke down as Democrats held the line on DACA, and some congressional Republicans pushed for things like caps on legal immigration, concessions that are instant non-starters for Democrats.

The nail in the coffin might have been the now-infamous White House meeting on January 12. Key senators arrived seeking to seal the deal on an immigration compromise with the president; instead, an agitated Trump asked why the U.S. continues to accept immigrants from “shithole” countries, and wondered why more immigrants from Norway weren’t coming.

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The fallout from the meeting was a media firestorm, finger-pointing and eroded trust between the two sides. From that point forward, the prospects for an immigration deal dimmed — as did those for avoiding a government shutdown.

How did the shutdown go down?

That the lack of a deal on DACA would lead to a government shutdown was not part of the congressional calculus just a few months ago. As recently as September, only one congressman — Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, the Democrats’ most progressive voice on immigration — was publicly arguing Democrats should go to a shutdown if their demands on DACA weren’t met.

Gradually, that view became part of the party mainstream, and Democrats’ message to Republicans became relatively clear: if you want to avoid a shutdown, put a DACA fix in the spending deal. Though DACA is not set to expire until March, with hundreds of thousands of young immigrants facing deportation, Democrats were adamant about not waiting longer to secure a deal. (Bloomberg has a good story tracing how immigration became the sticking point of the shutdown.)

As immigration talks fell apart, Republicans last week put forward their gambit to avoid a shutdown: a continuing resolution extending government funding through February 16. To lure Democrats — and to make the political price of opposition higher — Republicans included on the bill a six-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal initiative that helps nine million children access medical care. Funding for CHIP ran out at the end of September, and the program has become a pawn in political negotiations in Congress over the last half-year.

In the House of Representatives, an unruly faction of hard-line conservatives called the House Freedom Caucus got behind this CR with minimal drama, which meant Speaker Paul Ryan did not need Democratic support for the legislation.

On Thursday, the House voted to approve that CR by a vote of 230 to 197 — with 186 Democrats voting no for a variety of reasons, but chiefly the lack of a DACA fix. (All of Minnesota’s Democratic representatives voted no, save 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson, one of six Democrats to vote yes on the CR.)

The House GOP’s show of unity put the pressure to avoid a shutdown squarely on the Senate. With the GOP holding 51 seats there, and with some Republican senators poised to vote no, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needed more than a few members of the Senate Democratic caucus to vote yes on the CR in order to reach the 60-vote threshold for passage.

But late Friday night, the CR failed in the Senate by a vote of 50 to 49. Just five Democrats voted for it, while four Republicans voted against it. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith voted no. The New York Times has a breakdown of how all senators voted.

After the vote — and with two hours to go until a shutdown — senators huddled and deliberated on the floor, shuttling between Democratic and GOP leadership to try to secure a deal, but nothing was reached. The federal government began shutting down at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday. (Politico has a good play-by-play of the 24 hours leading up to that fateful minute.)

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Whose fault is it?

Immediately, Republicans and Democrats rushed to blame each other for the shutdown. Democrats — branding the event the “Trump Shutdown” — made the case that blame rests squarely on the GOP: the party controls the White House, the House, and the Senate. Republicans knew they needed Democratic votes, the argument goes, and knew that a DACA fix was a central condition to getting them. By putting forward a package without one, Republicans failed to act as a responsible governing party and ensured there’d be a shutdown.

Republicans, calling it the “Schumer Shutdown” in honor of the Democrats’ Senate leader, argue that Democrats are acting as an obstructionist minority that shut down the government over a policy demand unrelated to government spending. They argue that Democrats should have taken the one-month CR and negotiated on DACA afterward.

By failing to get on board with their plan, Republicans say, Democrats rejected health insurance for millions of kids, and endangered national security and the U.S. military, in favor of the demands of undocumented immigrants and liberal activists. (PolitiFact has a useful dive fact-checking Republicans’ claims about the shutdown and the military.)

Politicians, operatives, and pundits on both sides have been litigating these points aggressively over the weekend in the quest to persuade the American public that the shutdown is not their side’s fault. The quibbling started from the get-go, with liberals howling at a New York Times breaking news headline that said Senate Democrats “blocked” a resolution to keep the government open.

With a midterm election looming in November, both parties believe it is critical to win the shutdown messaging war, though it’s unclear how much the ordeal will matter to voters 10 months from now. Early polls indicate that the public is more inclined to blame Republicans than Democrats for the shutdown.

For more, read FiveThirtyEight on the 2013 government shutdown, for which voters largely blamed Republicans — but rewarded them in the following election with a majority in the U.S. Senate. The Washington Post has an early look at how the shutdown could affect the midterms, with an eye on the 10 vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won, some of whom voted with Republicans on the CR.

Behind closed doors and beyond the blame game, however, some Republicans and Democrats worked furiously to try to get a deal secured. A group of two-dozen senators, most of them from the centrist wings of both parties, met over the weekend to strike some deal that party leaders could get behind.

The possible compromise could fund the government through February 8, and it would carry no deal on DACA. Democrats want a concrete commitment from Republicans to address the issue before government funding runs out again.

You might be wondering: where has the president been in all this? Ever since a fruitless, eleventh-hour meeting on Friday with Schumer, POTUS has kept a pretty low profile as details of a deal are largely left to Capitol Hill. The president has been tweeting and blaming the shutdown on Democrats, but it appears he’s absent from crucial negotiations. (Many lawmakers are just fine with that.) Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, is literally across the world on a swing through the Middle East.

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The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker reports Trump is “itching” to be involved, but is pretty much relegated to the sidelines. POTUS, dealmaker-in-chief, was inclined to negotiate with Schumer and work out something that exchanged a DACA fix for funding for the wall while lifting spending caps, but his aides cautioned him against it. He’s helpfully given advice to McConnell, telling the majority leader to go nuclear and change Senate rules so a CR could advance with a simple majority. (This is unlikely to happen.)

What happened during the shutdown?

Meanwhile, large parts of the federal government have stopped functioning. The effects of that appeared more muted given that the shutdown began at the onset of a weekend, but that will change as the workweek begins, and hundreds of thousands of federal employees around the country stay home from work on Monday.

The most essential government services that Americans experience every day — the Postal Service and airport security, for example — will still function, as will the U.S. military and federal law enforcement.

Some national parks and monuments are open on Monday, and Washington’s Smithsonian museums are staying open, at least until emergency savings run out.

But at some federal agencies, large portions of the workforce are furloughed — at the Treasury Department, 83 percent of workers are home today. (If you’ve sent in your tax return for 2017, don’t expect to get your refund during the shutdown.) Populations that depend on federal programs will feel the brunt of the shutdown: the Department of Health and Human Services furloughed half of its employees, leaving programs that assist Native Americans unable to function.

For a good explanation of what actually happens in the federal government during a shutdown, check out this primer from Bloomberg, which will tell you what stops and what keeps going when the money runs out.

What happens now?

The shutdown could end today, but it could also drag on for days, or even weeks. An early opportunity to end it comes at around noon, when the Senate will vote on a CR to keep the government open through February 8. The deal contains no firm commitment that Republicans would bring an immigration bill to the floor, though McConnell says he would not get Trump’s approval before doing so, which would be a help for Democrats. McConnell has also stated his intent to bring an immigration bill to the floor before any new CR expires.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the Democratic caucus is poised to vote no on this spending bill, and many on the Hill remain skeptical the GOP would actually bring up an immigration bill. But some notable GOP holdouts, like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, signaled they would be voting yes this time around, meaning just a handful more Democrats would need to get to yes to meet the 60-vote threshold.

NPR is reporting that negotiations are actively continuing even as Republicans bring this CR to the floor. If the measure fails, it’s not implausible that a better alternative would hit the floor later on.

Meanwhile, the House is in a holding pattern, scheduling meaningless procedural votes so it can technically remain in session to consider a CR as soon as the Senate approves one. Speaker Paul Ryan has been saying he is more or less in favor of what the Senate has been working on.

But immigration hawks have more sway in the House GOP, which could create problems for Democrats looking for Republicans’ word that they will pursue a DACA fix with them. As of now, an agreement that Republican leadership would bring an immigration bill to the floor only applies in the Senate — the House could reject that, or any future bill, leading most Democrats to put little stock in McConnell’s vow.

When the shutdown does end, it will still be extremely difficult for Washington to find a path forward on immigration that the House, Senate, and White House could all get behind.