Washington’s new power play means shutdown won’t end soon
Democrats will grab significant leverage against President Donald Trump when they claim the House of Representatives on Thursday in a historic reshuffling of Washington’s balance of power.
But as they gear up to make life miserable for the White House, the first consequence of the new era of divided government will be to make a solution to the partial shutdown of federal agencies, now well into its second week, more elusive.
The showdown between Trump and newly empowered Democrats will only end when both sides have an incentive to move.
Right now, all the political forces that could bring the two sides together are flowing in opposite directions, as the political significance of the moment suddenly raises the stakes in their showdown over funding for Trump’s border wall.
Trump is refusing to water down his demand for $5 billion in funding for his border wall in return for agreeing on a federal funding package and appears to think he’s winning the showdown.
The huge shift in power set to take place Thursday only solidifies the position of the Democrats against additional funding. Presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has zero desire to acquiesce to the President during her first hours with a gavel in hand. Her diverse caucus may yet disagree on much, but they appear in lockstep over opposing Trump on the wall.
Senate Republicans, who already voted once in the last Congress to keep government open, are on the sidelines having made clear they won’t act on anything until a deal is reached that Trump will actually sign. And holiday season distractions meant that the misery of federal workers deprived of paychecks did not reach a critical mass that would force lawmakers to demand a swift resolution.
So, barring a miracle, the partial shutdown is not ending any time soon.
Senate Republican Majority leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday it could take “weeks” for government to reopen. Trump told reporters a resolution could take “a long time.”
The President hardened his position in an extraordinary 95-minute exchange that rambled through topics as diverse as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and machine gun-wielding Secret Service officers.
Still mourning his canceled vacation in balmy Palm Beach, the President said he had hoped that Democrats would come back to town during his home alone Christmas to negotiate.
And he dug in on the $5 billion figure — even after Vice President Mike Pence offered Democrats a $2.5 billion funding combination for border security and immigration funding late last year.
“No, not $2.5 billion, no. We’re asking for $5.6 billion. And you know, if somebody said $2.5 billion, no,” Trump said.
The political logic that prompted Trump to allow the government to close — heavy pressure from conservative pundits and House lawmakers — has not yet changed.
He’s in no position to blink.
If he caves now, he will get the backlash he feared before, with extra intensity.
During a Situation Room meeting involving congressional leaders, Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, asked Trump three times why he could not accept a short-term extension of funding for the Department of Homeland Security while further negotiations take place.
“I would look foolish if I did that,” Trump told Schumer, a person familiar with the conversation told CNN’s Phil Mattingly.
Judging by a barrage of holiday season tweets, Trump thinks he can wound the new Democratic majority in the House — both by overshadowing its big opening day and branding his rivals weak on immigration.
Apparently seeking to build pressure on Democrats, two senior administration officials told CNN’s Jeremy Diamond that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the leaders: “This is not a status quo situation. We are in a crisis situation.”
Democrats ready to wield power
Yet Democrats don’t seem spooked by Trump’s gambit.
In fact, the President’s hardline rhetoric on immigration was blamed by many analysts on both sides of the political divide for the disastrous performance among suburban voters that cost the GOP its House majority.
Still, the wall was fundamental to Trump’s appeal to his base, and helped win him the Republican nomination, so it’s hardly surprising his calculations on the issue differ from those of outsiders.
Trump, who ran against the Washington establishment and believes there is a deep state conspiracy to thwart him, may also be impervious to the plight of federal workers.
“The President is not long on empathy,” said Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who often supports Trump and is now a CNN political analyst.
“I think he feels like he can weather this storm because he’s not really concerned about the people calling him and saying ‘I can’t pay my bills’ … I think he feels like this is the issue he wants to set the template for how this Congress is going to work with the Democrats in charge,” Santorum said.
Once Pelosi is sworn in for her second spell as House speaker, a step expected later Thursday, she plans to show that Democrats can offer stable, responsible government in contrast to the chaos of the Trump era.
That’s why one of the first acts of the new Democratic House will be to pass a bill that would reopen the government in the short term and does not fund the wall — essentially replicating a bill passed in the GOP-led Senate last year.
“We’re asking the President to open up government. We are giving him a Republican path to do that. Why would he not do it? Why would he not do it?” Pelosi said at the White House on Wednesday.
The strategy lets Democrats make the case that they had power for a matter of hours and tried to reopen government.
Depriving Trump of funding for his wall — the ultimate symbol of the Democratic Party’s 2016 election humiliation — also fosters unity in a coalition already showing ethnic, gender and generational fault lines.
As an added benefit, Democrats can also drive a wedge between the rival GOP centers of power in Washington and expose the tenuous relationship between Senate Republicans and their President.
Wednesday’s events also suggest that Trump, who has spent his entire presidency cocooned by a GOP power monopoly in Washington, is yet to appreciate the new reality of divided government. He will no longer be able to activate a cell of conservatives Republicans to incite chaos in the House.
How the shutdown could end
McConnell is signaling that the House vote on reopening the government will not change much.
“One partisan vote in the House tomorrow is not going to solve anything. I made it clear to the Speaker we’re not interested in show votes in the Senate,” he said on Wednesday.
So far, there is no sign that Senate Republicans are maneuvering to offer Trump a face saving way out of what appears to be a dead end. In the past McConnell has been key to ending standoffs between various administrations and Capitol Hill.
Eventually, however, the shutdown may get resolved in the typical Washington way, with a fudge that offers both sides a way to claim victory.
It will come as no consolation to government workers who have been furloughed or who are working without pay that their plight has not yet dominated news coverage, as during is often the case in shutdowns.
But pictures are starting to emerge of overflowing garbage cans in Washington and closed national parks. Stories of deprivation among federal workers who live pay check to pay check are beginning to emerge.
Soon the real victims of the shutdown will begin inundating the offices of their Washington representatives with calls — adding to political pressure for an end to the shutdown.
It’s not as if there are no ideas for how to fix the situation that do not involve an abject climbdown by either side.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee published an op-ed in The Washington Post offering three approaches, including some already agreed in the past by bipartisan majorities.
Yet Trump’s stream of consciousness in his press availability at the White House Wednesday was a reminder that he is a wild card, as impenetrable to his own side as to Democrats. He made up facts and offered no tell about what kind of fall back position he would accept.
That means that even if legislative linguists on Capitol Hill craft a way out for everyone, there is no guarantee that an unpredictable President, answering only to his gut, will buy it.