‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the House, not a creature was stirring — even though a chunk of the federal government will shut down at week’s end unless Congress and President Donald Trump reconcile his demand for $5 billion in border-wall funding with Democratic lawmakers’ position that they’d rather eat their own toenails than approve a penny for his folly.
Lest anyone have any doubts, if a shutdown does come to pass at midnight Friday, when parts of the government are set to run out of funding, this president will own it 110 percent. Lawmakers, in a rare display of bipartisan, bicameral unity, have made this abundantly clear — in large part because Trump has given them no other choice.
Ordinarily, the strategy in such a situation is for each team to try to hang a shutdown around the neck of the other. Trump made that impossible for Republicans last Tuesday when, during a televised sit-down with Democratic congressional leaders, he said he’d be “proud” to “take the mantle” for grinding government operations to a halt. “I’m not going to blame you for it,” he promised Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
At that moment, you could almost see Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi begin to quiver with glee.
Republicans, by contrast, promptly began lamenting that no one had any clue how to avert the looming crisis. “There is no discernible plan — none that’s been disclosed,” Sen. John Cornyn, the party’s No. 2 man in the Senate, told reporters last week.
“No one has any idea what the play call is — we don’t know what’s going on,” Rep. Ryan Costello, who is retiring within weeks, told The New York Times.
Trump’s embrace of a shutdown has given lawmakers on both sides the freedom to throw up their hands and claim this whole mess is beyond their control. The mood around the Capitol is less one of urgency and activity than of fatalism. Last week, Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Congress looked to be “headed down the road to nowhere.”
In the House, both teams have proclaimed impotence, claiming it’s all up to the president and the Senate. Not only did Speaker Paul Ryan fail to mobilize lawmakers for a vote on Trump’s $5 billion, but many lame-duck members couldn’t be bothered to show up for work at all. (Nothing like an electoral rout to take the starch out of a conference.) Counting, much less whipping, the vote became all but impossible. By Thursday, House leaders gave up and sent members home for a six-day weekend.
On the Senate side, Schumer’s office is insisting that everything depends on whether the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, can persuade the president to embrace a deal that Democrats can live with. The latest offer on the table is for a one-year “continuing resolution,” or CR, that would delay the fight by temporarily funding parts of the government at current levels.
Some Hill Republicans think the smart move is for Trump to push for a much shorter, two-week CR that would kick the battle into early January, allowing Republicans to try to shift some of the blame onto the incoming Democratic House majority. But as of Monday, the president reportedly wasn’t keen on this option.
There have been rumblings that Trump might come around to the bipartisan compromise passed by the Senate earlier this year, which included $1.6 billion for fortifying existing border barriers. But no one has any sense of when, or even if, that might happen, and the signals emanating from the White House suggest the president isn’t yet in an accommodating mood. Even as Sen. John Barrasso, an incoming member of leadership, went on “Face the Nation” Sunday to stress the need to keep the government open, the administration dispatched hard-liner Stephen Miller to declare that, absent wall funding, a shutdown was “absolutely” on the table. During his executive time Monday, Trump tweeted that a wall is vital for “good Boarder Security.”
Whatever his ultimate plan — assuming he has one — the president is clearly looking to wring every ounce of drama he can from this game of chicken. These standoffs jibe neatly with his belief that negotiations, and life in general, are a never-ending battle of nerve. He lives to make the other side blink and is eager to signal that he’ll do whatever it takes to win.
Shutdowns are especially fertile ground for Trump because they pit him against a political establishment that, as he sees it, obstinately refuses to pay proper deference to his genius. He has repeatedly voiced frustration at Congress’ unwillingness to lie back and let him run things as he sees fit. Threatening to throw the government into chaos — to furlough, or in the case of personnel deemed “essential,” withhold paychecks from hundreds of thousands of workers, including Food and Drug Administration inspectors, Transportation Security Administration inspectors and, paradoxically, Border Patrol agents — lets him exact a bit of cathartic payback, reminding lawmakers just how uncomfortable he can make their lives.
Chest thumping and trash talking remain central to Trump’s brand as a disrupter. His followers thrill to him precisely because of his pugilistic, vaguely unhinged personality. The more he rails against politics as usual, the more his base swoons.
As for those who see Trump as behaving like a petulant toddler, he doesn’t have to face their electoral judgment for another two years — an eternity in politics.
For now, the president can relish playing the tough guy. Even if he winds up folding, he’ll doubtless toss out some alternative facts and declare victory. As usual, he has ensured that this holiday season’s drama is all about him.