President Donald Trump’s threat to shut down the government over funding for a border wall has split congressional Republicans. While some lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill welcomed the drawing of a line-in-the-sand, others are convinced that he was either riffing or lacks the foresight to understand that he holds a losing hand—or both.
Under the most optimistic of scenarios, Republicans believe that Trump’s threat actually increases the likelihood of a catch-all piece of legislation being passed sometime this fall.
One “grand-bargain” being floated on Capitol Hill involves the passage of a government funding bill that also increases the debt limit, protects undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers from deportation, and funds the wall, while also cutting domestic spending elsewhere. Those pushing this idea, which was first reported by McClatchy, believe that the president’s threat makes it more likely that all of those other items are added to the mix.
But GOP leadership says it’s naive to believe that Congress can come together on such a massive grouping of items. History, they note, suggests that lawmakers will think big but act small, passing continuing resolutions to keep the government funded in the short term and a debt ceiling hike that similarly kicks the can down the road. The idea that, within this milieu, they will manage to fund a border wall in its entirety is far-fetched.
“Are we gonna fund 2,000 miles of a border wall in one appropriations bill that’s a multi-year project?” said a Senate GOP leadership aide, who asked to be described as someone who “wants to get shit done.” “That’s silly. Appropriations are for a year. If you’re setting the bar at a 20-year project being put in a one year bill, you’re starting at the wrong place.”
Trump is prone to making political threats. But his foreshadowing of a shutdown fight still caught many aides and lawmakers off guard. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously criticized Trump for his “excessive expectations” when it comes to Congress’ pace. On Wednesday, the Senator put out a statement saying that his team and the White House have been in touch on numerous “shared goals.” Funding the government was listed. A border wall was not.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are committed to advancing our shared agenda together and anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation,” the statement read.
The response from the Hill to his Tuesday night threat, underscores the extent to which Trump remains caught between his campaign promises and procedural realities. Construction of a massive wall along the southern border, paid for by Mexico, was a cornerstone of his 2016 campaign. Trump has dropped the talk of Mexico covering the tab. But he’s so far unwilling to admit that a 2,000-mile wall won’t be coming any time soon.
“Build that wall. Now, the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it. But believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” Trump said Tuesday at a campaign rally in Phoenix.
Complicating Trump’s government shutdown threat is that it comes at a time when his relationship with congressional Republicans is at a nadir. The president has openly bickered with Senate Republicans for weeks after having called the House-passed health care bill “mean” despite having pushed for its passage.
Nevertheless, some GOP lawmakers seem emboldened by the idea of a shutdown fight, believing that the party has been drifting toward outright capitulation as it approached the twin challenges of funding the government and raising the debt ceiling at the end of September.
“If the White House had said, we just want to pass a straight appropriations bill, just get it done, or do a one-year continuing resolution, then that’s a sign that we’re just going to continue with the status quo,” a top House Republican aide told The Daily Beast, referring to a clean debt ceiling increase without the modest spending cuts that conservatives are seeking.
But if Trump is rallying members behind the idea of using the government funding bill to extract legislative gains, it’s not entirely clear that he has the numbers to do so effectively. One conservative House staffer said the departure of Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist makes it easier for the White House and congressional Republicans to cut a deal that includes spending cuts, funding for the border wall and DREAMer protections. Bannon, an economic nationalist voice in the White House, likely would have successfully discouraged the president from signing into law a package that includes protections for DREAMers.
“I think if we were having this conversation a week ago with Bannon in the White House, I’d say it’s not going to happen—there’s going to be no DREAMers deal,” the aide said. “But now that he’s gone, it looks like the powers that be in the White House are okay with it.”
But for such a package to pass, Trump would likely need Democratic votes. And Democratic leadership sources said that they would absolutely not allow immigration protections to be used as leverage for border wall funding. On top of that, one senior Democratic aide told The Daily Beast he was unaware of any conversations having actually taken place between party leadership.
Some Republicans aides who spoke with The Daily Beast worried that the president’s explicit shutdown threat could give Democrats some unintended leverage. Usually, in such a standoff, it pays to be perceived as the side that tried to avoid the shutdown from happening. Trump’s Tuesday night boast effectively removes that PR advantage.
“The president’s threat to shut down the government if he does not get his way is the polar opposite of leadership,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, adding that the proposed funds should be used “to help American families—not fulfill campaign applause lines.”
To that point, on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan was insisting that he didn’t “think anyone’s interested in having a shutdown.”
The question hanging over Congress is whether Trump shares that interest. Several Republicans said they didn’t think the president was idly boasting on Tuesday night—quite the contrary. Two Republican aides told The Daily Beast that White House officials—in particular the administration’s legislative team—will likely adopt the president’s threat as their official policy stance.
If Congress sends a government funding bill to the president’s desk that doesn’t include funding for the border wall and Trump vetoes it, he risks having the blame for a government shutdown laid squarely at his feet. The fear among lawmakers is that he might not care.
“It’s always a mistake to shut down the government. You make life worse for the American people. You put the country at risk,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who has pushed back on the White House’s demand for a clean debt ceiling hike, said Wednesday on CNN. “It shows political dysfunction, particularly when you control the presidency, the Senate and the House. So I would strongly advise against any threat to shut down the government of the United States.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did not respond to a question from The Daily Beast about whether the president would veto a spending bill that would keep the government open past September 30 if that bill does not contain funding for the border wall.