Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) could barely finish his sentence before bursting into laughter.
“Why are you laughing?” a reporter playfully asked.
“Well—why not?” Corker responded, later quipping: “Y’all have fun. I’m getting ready to ride to Chattanooga.”
Corker, who spoke minutes after President Donald Trump rejected congressional leaders’ plan to avert a pre-Christmas shutdown, is among a group of lawmakers on their way out at the end of the year. Sick and tired of the Washington circus, these members of Congress—who are either retiring or lost their re-election campaigns in November—have become persistently frustrated with the Trump White House to the point where they can no longer express their exasperation in a serious manner.
Thursday’s events—on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—underscored those long-standing tensions.
Trump had just told Republican lawmakers to go back to the drawing board on their plan to avert a partial government shutdown Friday at midnight, demanding once again that lawmakers fund his proposal for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had just shepherded a stopgap measure through the chamber the night before when, on Thursday afternoon, Trump indicated he would veto that bill. McConnell had to abruptly leave the Senate GOP lunch to confer with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) on a new path forward.
“They have no guidance right now,” Corker deadpanned.
Dozens of senators had already made their way home for the holiday season after approving a funding bill late Wednesday night that did not include extra funding for a border wall. With the House approving a Trump-friendly spending bill late Thursday that almost certainly cannot clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, lawmakers were left in limbo just a few days before Christmas.
Emerging from the Senate GOP lunch, some lawmakers were still insisting on meeting the president’s demands. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) maneuvered his way around Corker and told a reporter: “I think we need to follow through and fund the wall.”
After hearing Cruz’s remark, Corker abruptly stopped talking. He couldn’t keep it together.
“You can’t make this stuff up! Y’all have fun,” he quipped in between bouts of deep laughter. “I might not see you all again in a while.”
Throughout his 12 years in the Senate, Corker railed against Congress’ broken budget process which has brought the country to the brink of fiscal disaster several times per year. That his Senate tenure was ending this way—with an unpredictable president, whom Corker has criticized vehemently, throwing Capitol Hill into chaos mode once again—was, oddly, fitting.
House Republican leaders trying to meet the president’s demands shrugged off concerns about the Senate’s inability to pass their spending bill that includes substantial funding for a border wall—increasing the likelihood of a shutdown on Friday at midnight.
“The Senate’s going to have a challenge to face: whether they want to secure the border, or are they going to stick with the crowd that’s for open borders and won’t stand with the president? It’ll be a clear decision,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said.
“No, come on!” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) quipped when confronted with the reality that the Senate would not approve the House’s plan, which includes more than $5 billion for border security. “Why are you so negative?”
Their nonchalant demeanor rattled Capitol Hill, where most lawmakers and staffers alike were eager to leave Washington before the holidays—wall or no wall.
“It’s not surprising at all,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a moderate Republican who lost his re-election bid and was subsequently shamed by the president for running an anti-Trump campaign. “I would have been surprised if we would have ended this term smoothly. This is just another example of how broken and dysfunctional and disappointing our politics are. These are things I will not miss.”
The past few days have been head-spinning for the few Trump critics among the Republican ranks. The GOP at-large, too, has been reeling from the president’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria—sparking near-unanimous criticism within Trump’s own party—and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ subsequent resignation.
Nearly all of the #NeverTrump Republicans are leaving Congress at the end of the year, meaning the GOP will be left with fewer lawmakers willing to take the president to task.
“A lot of us who were fighting against this kind of dynamic will not be here next term,” Curbelo said. “I hope I’m wrong for the sake of the country, but I think things will only get worse.”