Why the Shutdown Is Happening

The Republican and Democratic bases are pulling strongly in opposite directions, making a deal on government funding incredibly difficult to reach.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Dec. 22, 2018, 8:01 p.m.

In the past, in the waning hours before a shutdown, Congress has passed short-term measures to let negotiators cool off and punt the fight to another day. This Christmas season, both sides decided to embrace the fight and let funding lapse.

Why? Largely because the parties’ respective bases demanded it.

A portion of the government shut down as Friday turned to Saturday, and later on Saturday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent senators home for the holidays, with the chamber not returning to session—and a deal not possible—until Thursday at the earliest. McConnell’s move capped a dizzying few days of inaction, and mixed signals from the White House.

On Thursday morning, House Republican leaders awoke thinking President Trump would sign a short-term continuing resolution that would have put off further debate about funding a border wall until February.

“That was the indication,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said. But then, “Somebody showed me a tweet.”

After hours of negative coverage on Fox News, a raucous display on the House floor Wednesday evening by the House Freedom Caucus, and a phone call between Trump and the group’s chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows—all of whom were goading Trump to fight—the president had an apparent change of heart. At 7:28 a.m., he announced via Twitter that Democrats are “putting politics over country” and that he “will not sign any of their legislation, including infrastructure, unless it has perfect Border Security.”

“It’s a pretty juvenile place we find ourselves,” said retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker. “The tyranny of talk-radio-show hosts.”

Republican members had long agreed with the policy of funding a border wall at $5 billion. It was the tactic of shutting down the government they found largely self defeating. But once Trump’s mind was made up, the path became narrow for House Republicans, according to members and aides. Purely as a matter of governance, a shutdown is harmful. Politically, however, it may be a wash.

“The speaker said we’re going to only go where the president goes, so that’s why,” said GOP Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry. “That’s actually where our conference was and that’s actually where the president is.”

As a conference that had just been decimated in the November elections, they had little left to lose. Most members in suburban seats where the wall may not be as popular had already lost. The members who were left are eager to show their constituents they are fighting for a wall, even if it is in the form of a death rattle from a conference soon to be in the minority.

“Why would we blink? We have nothing to lose and our districts are with us,” one such member said, speaking anonymously. “I believe in my soul that we have a deadly crisis on our southern border and I have a responsibility to my country to fight for this. It is also the case that my constituents agree with me.”

Although Democrats have crowed about Trump and Republicans being responsible for a shutdown, it is questionable whether there will be any political consequences for the GOP. In fact, that is the exact lesson many members learned from the 2013 16-day shutdown over Obamacare funding. Though the politics appeared stacked against them at the time, they won the next round of elections and with it, control of the Senate.

The same thinking applied this week. With the next election two years away, it is entirely possible, some Republicans believe, that few will remember the fights of this December—apart from the party base that wants them to fight at all costs to secure the border.

The Senate similarly snapped in Trump’s direction by Friday afternoon. After Republican senators met with Trump at the White House, a procedural vote held open for hours to accommodate those still traveling back from Washington eventually fell mostly along party lines.

But a final vote won’t be scheduled before congressional leadership and Trump agree on a final framework, senators said.

The same body just two days prior had passed a continuing resolution whose only tepid objections came from fiscal conservatives upset at the process.

“We should be doing all of this in July, August, and September, and if that were the case then we wouldn’t be able to be wedged like this,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican. “If there’s an opportunity to wedge, individuals who would like to will take advantage of that, and that’s what’s going on now.”

But by Friday, Republicans in the upper chamber felt siding with Trump was simply smart politics. Republican Sen. Steve Daines went to far as to agree with Trump’s call to end the filibuster. Daines is up for reelection in a state that last month reelected his Democratic colleague, Sen. Jon Tester, by a wider-than-usual margin.

“I think border security­’s extremely important,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, a McConnell adviser who attended the White House meeting. “I just was reelected, and I had tremendous support from around the state, won by 20 points. My Democrat opponent embraced my position on border security in the state of Nebraska, so there’s support for border security.”

For their part, Democrats were beholden to a base of their own. Yes, the chambers and their leaders previously agreed to various levels of border-wall funding. But the dynamic had changed. For one, those proposals had come as part of larger immigration deals.

Secondly, Democrats, against early odds, won a wave victory in the House, in part owing to Trump’s divisive immigration rhetoric. Activists and incoming freshman progressives have recoiled at the very idea of a physical border wall, and in recent weeks, Democratic leaders’ rhetoric towards the idea has sharpened.

Democrats also think they are winning in the eyes of the public, an idea the polling seems to support.

“Everybody in America thinks [Trump’s] the guy shutting down the government,” House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer said, recalling the president’s Oval Office comments taking ownership of a shutdown. But he added that, “Their guys are pretty fired up about the wall. This is no longer about the policy. It’s about who’s got the moxie to win this thing, unfortunately.”

With Democrats set to take control of the House in January, they have little incentive to make concessions to Trump. Instead, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi can lead from a position of power.

“This isn’t on us. Look, they have the majority here. They’re the ones shutting down the government,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, who will head House Democrats’ campaign wing next year. “This is on them. Come Jan. 3, then we can talk about strategies, and I can tell you this is not the way we’re going to operate.”

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