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GOP Creates Trolley Problem, Puts Sick Kids on the Track

There aren't a lot of clean choices in politics, but this bill could leave the DACA dead in the water.

As the debate over the DACA rages on in Congress and Friday’s government funding deadline looms, congressional Republicans have paired a stopgap funding measure that would avert a shutdown with a plan to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for the next eight to ten years. The gamble seems to be forcing Democrats to choose between sick children and immigrants, many of whom are parents of American children. 

This, in essence, is a congressional version of “The Trolley Problem,” a popular thought experiment about inaction and consequence. The idea, for those not familiar, is that a person standing at a spot where a trolley track divides must choose to either throw a switch, ensure the death of one person or not throw it, allowing for the death of multiple people. Is it murder if they throw the switch? That’s an abstract question that GOP politicians are rendering very literal. Rephrased, it looks like this: Do we protect the almost 9 million children who benefit from CHIP or the 800,000 people benefiting from the DACA? It assumes that there is no way to do both — in essence, manufacturing a dilemma.

Congressional Democrats, especially the ones up for reelection in the upcoming midterm elections, would typically leap at the opportunity to fund a generally beloved program like CHIP, which is more affordable if funded for longer periods of time anyway. The question is whether, given the presidents rhetoric on immigration, they can be baited into voting for a stopgap and losing their key bargaining chip. It’s unclear and unnerving for Dreamers. It’s also confounding given the recent court order suggesting the White House could not end DACA in the manner it did.

The government has resumed accepting applications for DACA and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Congress has “at least until March, at a minimum, and possibly even longer” to arrive at a conclusion regarding the DACA and immigration in general. But there is little trust in Washington these days.

Having some time to come to a solid conclusion on immigration in no way diminishes the bind the upcoming vote puts Democrats in or the way in which the vote could split the party in some respects. On the Democratic side, this may boil down to politics as usual— a game of who can or can’t afford to look bad right now. While congressional Democrats who are up for reelection this year might vote to keep the government open and pass a bill to fund CHIP, those who aren’t —and have their eyes set on a 2020 presidential run— may be prone to playing a longer game. By protecting the DACA at the expense of CHIP funding, Democrats considering a White House run can be viewed more favorably, as congresspeople who never undermined the general Democratic stance on immigration.