President Donald Trump learned over the past month a valuable Washington lesson that old-timers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell learned long ago: Shutdowns never work.
After beating a retreat and agreeing last week to end the shutdown on Pelosi’s terms — with no money for his oft-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall — it’s difficult to imagine Trump getting anywhere near his $5.7 billion demand for wall funding in an upcoming round of negotiations. And it would seem unlikely that Trump would attempt another shutdown strategy after the last one blew up in his face. Capitol Hill Republicans, especially in the Senate, have little appetite for a reprise.
With the government funded for three weeks, it’s up to a group of House and Senate negotiators from the powerful Appropriations Committee to try to iron out a deal under the close watch of top leaders including Pelosi, McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Pelosi, D-Calif., was a longtime member of the panel before rising into leadership, and McConnell, R-Ky., still sits on it. Both of them know how to cut a deal.
But the talks, set to begin Wednesday, will be centered on the polarizing question of what border security projects should be funded in a package for Homeland Security. For both parties, as well as the hundreds of thousands of federal workers returning Monday from unpaid furloughs, there is no guarantee of an easy resolution.
“In the past, when the president has stayed out of it, when the president has given Congress room, we have been repeatedly able to forge bipartisan agreements, including two budget agreements. When the president injects maximalist partisan demands into the process, negotiations tend to fall apart,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday.
Trump himself is pessimistic about a deal and says he likely won’t accept less than his $5.7 billion demand. Adding a bigger immigration deal such as protection for so-called Dreamer immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children is a long shot as well, Trump told The Wall St. Journal in an interview Sunday.
“If everybody could leave the thing to the appropriators and let them cut the deal … then yeah, you could end this. At this point, I’m not confident that that could happen,” said Hazen Marshall, a lobbyist who left McConnell’s staff last month. “I don’t think it’s good enough for the president, and I think it would remain too much for Pelosi.”
With prospects of a deal so iffy, the White House is considering using emergency powers to declare a national emergency and arbitrarily shift billions of dollars from disaster aid or other accounts into border security. That raises the possibility that Trump might sign a catchall government funding bill that shortchanges his wall request and immediately grab some or all of the funding anyway.
“The best fix is to be able to do it legislatively,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday. But, she added, “If Congress doesn’t do their job, then the president will be forced to make up for all their shortcomings.”
While issuing an emergency declaration would likely draw pushback from Trump’s own party, it would bow to the reality about shutdowns: The folks who start them invariably lose.
In the 1990s, Pelosi and McConnell watched House Speaker Newt Gingrich take a political beating at the hands of President Bill Clinton after starting two futile shutdowns to try to force Clinton to balance the budget. Almost two decades passed without another shutdown.
In 2013, GOP conservative hard-liners tried a futile shutdown strategy to try to “defund” President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, only to come away with nothing. And just last year, Democrats were on the losing side when sparking a brief shutdown over protecting “Dreamer” immigrants — a move easily quashed by Trump and McConnell.
The fundamental flaw in a shutdown strategy is simple: It’s usually obvious who’s responsible, and that side carries less leverage into the fight because the public awards them the blame. It’s difficult to shift blame to the other side when one’s opponent simply asks to reopen the government.
In this case, opinion polls were decisive. Only 34 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s job performance in a survey released last week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research — down from 42 percent a month earlier.
What is also true about shutdowns is that the party that is held responsible for starting them tends to become more splintered and disunified as time passes. Vice President Mike Pence got an earful at a lunch of unhappy Senate Republicans last Thursday, and several Republicans split from Trump in a vote afterward.
Pelosi, meanwhile, did what any congressional leader would have done in her situation. Seeing public opinion solidly behind Democrats and watching Trump’s approval rating sink, she held firm, insisting that Trump reopen the government before having talks about border security.
Trump could never shake the fact that he had sparked the shutdown, so making demands while suffering among federal workers worsened and problems from the shutdown grew more severe —such as Friday’s partial closure of New York City’s LaGuardia Airport— eventually proved unsustainable.
“I don’t think shutdowns are good leverage,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “It’s a lesson I’ve certainly learned in my time here.”
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