First the bad news about negotiations over the 2017 spending bill that Congress needs to pass before midnight on Friday or face a government shutdown: The last several days have been a mess of mixed messages about what should get funded, last-minute demands that cannot be met, and disagreement at the highest levels about how to proceed.
But the good news for Republicans, and really for all of us exhausted by the thought of yet another standoff over basic funding levels, is that nearly all of the bad habits of negotiating and governance on this issue have been confined to the White House.
Almost without notice, Republicans leading the negotiations on Capitol Hill have been quietly, steadily moving forward with their Democratic colleagues and were well on their way to ‘yes’ this week — at least until the president began to weigh in.
For anyone wondering whether Congress can get even the most basic functions of their jobs done, the work that appropriators had managed to plow through on the spending bill to this point almost answered that question in the affirmative. That’s something we haven’t been able to say for some time about members of Congress, so let’s call that genuine progress.
When I checked in with appropriators several weeks ago, everything seemed to be going well, even from Democrats’ perspective. The sides had been meeting quietly for months. Disagreements were being addressed and a smooth ride past a shutdown crisis seemed to be in reach. Unlike other issues, nobody was looking for a fight on 2017 funding levels on either side. They all wanted a deal.
But both Democrats and Republicans warned that the one thing that could throw a wrench into the negotiations was a last-minute demand from the president himself, specifically on the border wall.
He’s back …
Sure enough, as Congress came back to Washington after its two-week Easter recess, the White House began to signal that new funding for the border wall would be the price of a spending bill.
On Friday of last week, OMB director Mick Mulvaney said he had floated a dollar-for-dollar offer to Democrats to pay for the wall in exchange for continuing subsidies for low-income Americans to pay for health insurance under Obamacare, an offer Democrats rejected outright.
On Sunday, Homeland Security Director John Kelly said the president would insist on wall funding in the spending bill this week, but moments later Mulvaney wouldn’t say whether or not wall funding was a requirement for President Trump to sign a bill to keep the government open.
By Monday, the president Tweeted that the wall would be funded “eventually but at a later date,” and told conservative media that evening at the White House that he’d probably be open to delayed funding for the wall as a part of the negotiations.
Less than 12 hours later, the president accused “the fake media” of confusing everybody on the issue. “Don’t let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.”
Got it? For a man who promised to fix Washington, Trump’s achievement of making Washington more broken than he found it, even on a short-term funding bill, should not go unnoticed.
Members of Congress, especially appropriators, learned some hard lessons in past shutdowns and were acting on them. They began negotiations early and had Democrats and Republicans at the table from the start. They kept their progress mostly quiet and avoided airing early disagreements in the press, which has an uncanny way of making things worse, not better.
On the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the president is in the process of doubling down on the habits that broke Washington in the first place. He’s governing for his base, freezing out Democrats whose votes he’ll need in the Senate, ignoring Republicans who disagree with him, and trying to pass big things with small numbers.
And when in doubt, he Tweets.
Listening can’t hurt
The first thing President Trump should probably do to get his wall built, with taxpayer money no less, is to convince members of his own party that it’s a good idea. Even better, he should listen to his fellow Republicans, including nearly every member of the Texas congressional delegation, about why they oppose the idea.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), whose sprawling district runs along 800 miles of the Southern border, calls a continuous wall “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) told CNN Tuesday he’s for border security, but a physical wall across the entire 2,200 expanse is not necessary “at all.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said essentially the same thing that nearly any Republican says after visiting the Southern border. “I’m for a wall where it makes sense, but a 2,200 mile wall doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s not a big appetite for that.”
Trump’s path to avoiding a shutdown at the end of the week is even easier — do nothing. Stop negotiating. Listen to your Congressional leadership and take the deal they’ve negotiated. The economy doesn’t need the threat of a shutdown and voters don’t need to revisit the now routine disappointment that their own government in Washington can even get the basics done. Because guess what — for once, the Do-nothing Congress has gotten a lot done on this bill.
There’s an old saying in Washington that President Trump would probably enjoy, but only because it came from a famous general — Gen. George Patton, who liked to say, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
As the clock ticks toward Friday at midnight, President Trump should take Patton’s advice to heart. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have already shown leadership on this issue. The one thing they need now is for President Trump to get out of the way.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.