ANALYSIS | Republicans — despite controlling the House, Senate and White House — have no firm plan to avert a partial government shutdown scheduled to start on Friday night. But for President Donald Trump, that’s just when he feels most in control.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said Tuesday afternoon during an unrelated event. “It’s too early to say.” (Translation: Stay tuned to “The Trump Show.”)
Senior Democratic leaders initially said they have heard “not a peep” from Republican leaders and the White House before they started trading offers with Republican leaders, the first signs this week of movement toward possibly avoiding a partial shutdown. Offers and counter-offers began flying by midday, with the White House playing coy on which one Trump might eventually embrace.
At the White House, most officials on Tuesday were mostly focused on Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser and 2016 campaign aide, whose sentencing in federal court was abruptly and dramatically delayed. The president focused on Flynn and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, letting the shutdown drama build as one-fourth of the federal workforce wonders whether their Christmas celebrations will feature shutdown conversations with family members.
Watch: What Really Happens During a Government Shutdown, Explained
But other officials were working with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill on trying to find enough common ground to avoid shutting down the Interior, Agriculture, State, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security departments over the holidays.
During past Washington shutdown dramas, media outlets like Roll Call would refer to the theatrics as a “shutdown showdown.” But in the current drama, Trump is the executive producer and star — that makes this week more like “The Trump Show: Shutdown.” Here are three ways Trump, as the shutdown maestro, might direct this week’s shutdown show to play out.
Notably, Trump has yet to reject two Democratic offers Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi delivered to him following a rowdy Oval Office meeting last week. And his top spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, floated the White House’s first proposal on Tuesday morning.
But as usual, there was a catch — Trump appeared to insist any legislation put on his desk give him the flexibility to use other funds already identified to get closer to his desired $5 billion.
“We have other ways to get to that $5 billion, that we will work with Congress if they will make sure that we get a bill passed that provides not just the funding for the wall, but there’s a piece of legislation that’s been pushed around that Democrats actually voted 26-5 out of committee, that provides 26, roughly $26 billion in border security, including $1.6 billion for the wall,” Sanders said on Fox News.
“That’s something that we would be able to support as long as we can couple that with other funding resources that would help us get to the $5 billion,” she said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to shut down the government, we want to shut down the border.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Schumer were openly negotiating by Tuesday afternoon. The Republican leader floated the Senate-passed $1.6 billion border barrier amount and a $1 billion border security fund for fiscal 2019, which Schumer rejected.
Another option might be a continuing resolution to keep those departments open into January; Schumer was warm to the idea Tuesday and the White House has not rejected the notion.
Sanders sidestepped questions during a rare press briefing about whether Trump would sign a short stopgap, saying the White House would first assess anything that passes either or both chambers. But McConnell concluding a stopgap is the only passable measure — and telling Trump as much — could change the plot line dramatically. “I think a government shutdown is not a good idea,” McConnell said after trading proposals with Schumer, replying “yes” when asked if he was now convinced a partial shutdown could be avoided.
That all amounts to progress. And it might allow everyone in Washington, including Trump, to leave town with a crisis averted. But White House staffers have formed policy and spending proposals before, floated them publicly, then had them shot down by the boss. If Trump is still on board when the House gets down to business Wednesday, the need for a Christmas miracle will diminish substantially.
Christmas (Eve) ‘miracle’
Or perhaps not. Another possible path: Trump won’t quickly sign whatever lawmakers might pass by Friday and head off as planned that day on his South Florida holiday season vacation. Essential government workers at entities like DHS — which includes personnel at the U.S.-Mexico border and airport-securing TSA, as well as Coast Guard folks helping secure his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — would report to work during a short shutdown.
A weekend partial shutdown would serve a political purpose — for both sides. The president could then criticize Democratic members for refusing to give him the $5 billion in new monies he wants for his southern border wall. And Democrats, especially 2020 White House hopefuls, could fan out for cable news and Sunday morning political shows to bash Trump for shuttering significant chunks of the federal apparatus.
But come Monday, with Christmas Day just hours away, Trump could do what he’s done several times before: Cast himself as the one who decided to solve a crisis he mostly created. That would mean signing whatever spending bill both chambers might pass — it likely would be an otherwise quiet news day — then assemble a mini-press conference to declare victory.
Though talks slowly started Tuesday, there’s no guarantee the president won’t react to footage on Fox News or another network of a senior Democrat rejecting one of his offers by forcing even a short shutdown. But old D.C. hands will say the various players talking is better than the alternative.
To that end, White House officials are having “constant and regular conversations with the Hill” about possible ways to avert a partial government shutdown later this week, Sanders said. “We want to know what they can pass. ... We’ve laid out what we would like to see.”
Shutdown to ‘nowhere’
In the most recent scene of the show, McConnell and Schumer were the main characters — with Trump and his aides opting against rejecting any of the proposals. Sanders said it is now up to Congress to consider what she floated and what they can pass; once legislation is crafted, White House aides will assess it and Trump would decide whether he would sign it into law.
Pelosi and Schumer last week offered $1.3 billion for border fencing, meaning the two sides appear divided by $300 million and some semantics about just what would be built. Then there is any possible promise by Democratic leaders in both chambers to actually approve what’s known as a “reprogramming” request by the White House to use federal funds allocated by Congress for other things for a border wall.
If the president decides he cannot trust what might amount to a mere promise from Schumer and Pelosi, who likely would be speaker when such a request is reviewed by a House Appropriations Committee by then under Democratic control, he might make good on his pledge last week “to take the mantle.”
“I will be the one to shut it down,” he said, roaring at the two top Democrats: “I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.” They won’t take the same messaging approach, Schumer made clear, saying if the president refuses to negotiate, “he will cause a Trump shutdown over Christmas.”