House Republicans prepare a legislative strategy with President Donald Trump seemingly on board, only for the president to catch them off guard with a last-minute tweet suggesting his opposition to the plan.
That scenario has played out a few times this year as lawmakers debated immigration and appropriations bills. And it could realistically happen again next week as Congress plans to pass legislation to avert a government shutdown that Trump has already signaled he might force.
Nonetheless, most House Republicans are confident the government will be funded by the Sept. 30 deadline. Speaker Paul D. Ryan has said on multiple occasions that there won’t be a shutdown, a sentiment echoed by GOP appropriators and many rank-and-file members.
Ryan met with Trump in late July and again earlier this month to talk about Congress’ appropriations strategy. The speaker contends that Trump is on board with GOP leaders’ plan, which involves punting a fight over border wall funding to December.
“We have a good understanding,” the Wisconsin Republican said Sept. 6, a day after his latest meeting with Trump. “I’m confident our understanding will stick.”
The speaker’s confidence comes amid weeks of mixed messaging from Trump. The president has said in tweets and at campaign rallies that he’s willing to shut down the government to secure funding for the border wall. At times he’s said he could wait until after the midterm elections. He’s also said he’d prefer to have that fight now.
History of wrench throwing
Trump’s waffling over the matter is similar to what he did in June as House Republicans debated dueling comprehensive immigration bills dealing with border security and the wall as well as protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
After House Republicans crafted a compromise bill designed to draw more support than a conservative measure had, Trump initially said he “certainly wouldn’t sign” the compromise. He later privately told the GOP conference he supported it, but then used a tweet to question the point of passing either bill. On the day of the vote on the compromise, he crafted a tweet balancing those two positions, saying House Republicans should pass it even though Senate Democrats would prevent it from advancing.
Many Republicans attributed the embarrassing failure of the compromise bill to Trump’s wavering support.
During the fiscal 2018 government funding debate, Congress broke through a monthslong impasse to finally pass an omnibus appropriations bill on the eve of a March 23 deadline. Trump surprised lawmakers with a last-minute threat to veto the measure, creating a brief period of suspense before he reluctantly signed the bill later that day.
That history suggests Trump could easily throw another wrench in House Republicans’ plans. But like Ryan, most members interviewed for this story last week were certain there won’t be a government shutdown this month.
“It would be suicide to have a shutdown; it’d just be dumb,” Texas Rep. Bill Flores said.
“There won’t be a shutdown,” said Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a GOP appropriator. When pressed on where his confidence was coming from given Trump’s rhetoric to the contrary, he said “the fact that we won’t have a shutdown” and declined to elaborate further.
A fellow appropriator, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, said he thinks the shutdown threat is an empty one and that Trump will sign the spending bills Congress sends him because a lot of it reflects his priorities and his values.
Asked why Trump would tweet that he’s willing to shut down the government over immigration, Cole said, “You’ll have to ask him that. I’m not here to psychoanalyze the president.”
On Saturday, after these interviews were conducted, Trump tweeted again. While he didn’t specifically mention a shutdown, he continued to cast doubt on Republicans’ confidence that he would readily sign legislation to avoid one.
“When will Republican leadership learn that they are being played like a fiddle by the Democrats on Border Security and Building the Wall?” the president wrote. “Without Borders, we don’t have a country. With Open Borders, which the Democrats want, we have nothing but crime! Finish the Wall!”
That tweet came after Trump’s conservative allies in Congress, like Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, had suggested that GOP leaders are throwing away all leverage on appropriations by pairing the Defense spending bill with one for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. That two-bill package contains a continuing resolution extending funding for some agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security measure that covers border security funding, through Dec. 7. The Senate passed the package Tuesday, 93-7.
“I’m not sure how we could have less leverage than doing that particular strategy,” Meadows told reporters Thursday.
The North Carolina Republican suggested the decision removes any chance that Trump will secure any new money for the border wall in fiscal 2019.
“At this point I don’t anticipate any border wall funding. ... It will be a CR. And I think it will be a CR in perpetuity, which would suggest there’s no border wall funding, whether it’s now or later,” Meadows said.
‘Back and forth’
Trump’s Saturday tweet attacking GOP leadership suggests he agrees with that assessment. But so far the president has been quiet on the package moving in Congress. It remains to be seen whether he’s willing to pick a fight with the leaders of his own party less than seven weeks before the November midterms in which Republicans’ control of the House — and maybe even the Senate — hangs in the balance.
A few conservatives who disagree with leadership’s strategy acknowledged last week that Trump could provoke a shutdown.
“Truthfully, I think he’s back and forth on it,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said. “I think he’s trying to fulfill what he said he wanted to do.”
The North Carolina Republican said he doesn’t fault Trump for having the mindset of being willing to do whatever it takes but personally doesn’t think a shutdown would advance anything. Unlike some of his confident colleagues, Walker would not predict there won’t be one.
“I can’t say that it won’t happen,” he said. “I don’t anticipate it, but I would not take it off the table.”
As Freedom Caucus and RSC member Warren Davidson put it, “The president gets a say. It can’t be law without the president’s signature. He campaigned on his priorities, and realistically, we should be fighting for them.”
Walker and Davidson are not fans of the package pairing Labor-HHS-Education and Defense, especially since the former measure does not include many of the conservative policy riders that were in the House version.
Conservatives are “trying to make a fuss” about the lack of anti-abortion provisions, Walker said, but he acknowledged that Defense appropriations being part of the package “makes it tough” for many RSC members to vote against it.
“Can we get there?” he said. “Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s going to be a difficult vote.“
Meadows is planning to vote against the package, and other Freedom Caucus members may follow his lead. But he predicted that a majority of House Republicans would band together with Democrats to pass it.
That broad support is why Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo isn’t worried about a shutdown, regardless of what position Trump takes.
“I have no idea what he’s doing. I know what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s more than two-thirds I think, who don’t want shutdown. … If two-thirds of both chambers vote to keep the government open, then it’s kind of irrelevant.”
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