‘I’m okay with a shutdown’: Inside the chaos of the House GOP’s last days




Mark Meadows

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) would not comment on his Thursday morning exchange with President Donald Trump. But his success in getting the president to threaten a deal without money for a border wall speaks for itself. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Congress

Trump gave a green light to his party’s hard-liners, and the House Republican majority ends with Washington barreling into another crisis of its own making.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows picked up the phone early Thursday morning and dialed up a frustrated Donald Trump for yet another pep talk.

The president was agitated over suggestions in the conservative media that he was caving on his border wall campaign promise. He had just taken to Twitter to downplay the importance of securing new wall funding before Christmas and suggested he’d fight for the wall next Congress — GOP leadership’s preferred strategy to avoid a shutdown.

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But Meadows, who is close with the president and was recently in the running to be his next chief of staff, urged Trump to make a stand now before Democrats took the House in January — just as he had the night before and multiple times earlier in the week. Stick to your guns, the North Carolina Republican told the president, according to a source familiar with the conversation. We conservatives will have your back. And now is the last best chance to fight.

Never mind that half the Senate had left town for the holidays having voice-voted passage of a temporary funding bill without wall money, all while Democrats sang Christmas carols on the floor. And never mind that House GOP leaders were already twisting arms in their caucus to support a proposal they thought the White House wanted.

Not four hours later, the president hauled Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders to the West Wing and instructed them to change course. And they did.

“I’m OK with a shutdown,” Trump told the group, according to two sources in the room.

The hard-liners had defeated leadership once again, and Washington was barreling into another crisis of its own making with no endgame in sight.

It’s the quintessential ending to the fractious eight-year House GOP majority, which was dominated by knife fights between GOP leaders and conservatives. Since Republicans took power on a tea party wave in 2010, hard-liners have tried to force their more pragmatic-minded leaders further right — ultimately driving one speaker, John Boehner, out of town and threatening to do the same to his replacement, Ryan.

When Trump came to Washington, these conservatives found a more willing partner in a powerful position. And over the past two years, they’ve perfected a strategy of circumventing GOP leadership by appealing to Trump and his instincts to please the base.

They squashed Ryan’s initial Obamacare repeal bill because it wasn’t conservative enough. They trampled the speaker’s attempt to craft a moderate GOP immigration proposal with a fix for Dreamers. And now, they’re ending two years of Republican hegemony over Washington by cheering Trump to shutter a quarter of the federal government just days before Christmas if he doesn’t get his wall.

“There is a bad case of Potomac fever up here in Washington, D.C. They forget what they promised the American people,” Meadows said late Wednesday night on the House floor. “Mr. President, we’re going to back you up if you veto this bill… But more importantly the American people will be there, they’ll be there to support you.”

Meadows would not comment on his Thursday morning exchange with the president. But his success — and that of the conservatives aligned with him — speaks for itself. By the time Trump called the Republican lawmakers to the White House, GOP leaders said little to push back on their right flank. They’d won this round.

As Washington peers over the abyss of its third shutdown in two years, some Republicans see signs of a broken institution. Thousands of federal employees could be furloughed or forced to work without pay. And House Republicans as of Thursday night were embracing the chaos.

Outgoing Rep. Carlos Curbelo said his colleagues should know better. “Until a centrist coalition emerges that puts the breaks on this car and turns it around,” he said, “it’s only going to get worse.”

“Unfortunately, some people around here put their career and their positions of power above the interests of the institution and the country,” said the Florida moderate, who lost his reelection. “And until that changes, until we have statesmen and states women, this will continue going on.”

He jabbed at Meadows as well: “Our Freedom Caucus colleagues, they probably know that their relevance is going to be completely diminished next Congress, so this is kind of like a last gasp, but we know how this ends.”

Perhaps senior Republicans should have seen this coming. When Trump signed their previous $1 trillion spending bill last spring, he chided Congress for sending him a document that didn’t include much wall money and warned he’d never sign a similar bill again.

It’s why GOP leaders devised a strategy this summer to pass several mini appropriations packages, hoping smaller doses would be easier for Trump to swallow. The strategy would also minimize the impact of a shutdown, should Trump take it that far, since multiple agencies would already be funded.

When the end of the fiscal year approached in late September, just days before the critical midterm elections, GOP leaders begged Trump not to veto a short-term spending bill that extended funding for seven agencies to December 7. A shutdown before the election, they said, would crush their already dimming prospects.

They got their wish. Trump backed down again. But as part of the agreement, GOP leaders promised once again that they’d fight for Trump’s border wall after the election — even to the point of a shutdown.

He wasn’t the only one they made that vow to. Conservative Rep. Andy Biggs had approached a Republican leader about putting a wall funding bill on the House floor just before the election, convinced it would turn out the base. The leader — he wouldn’t say who — told him Republicans would fight after the election.

“What they said was, ‘We will have that fight, that debate, after the midterms,’” the Arizona Republican said. “Where is the fight?”

Yet something clearly changed in leadership’s calculus. Senior Republicans, wary of a shutdown, thought perhaps they could get the president to punt on his border wall fight again. They found the perfect excuse when President George H.W. Bush died in early December. And they moved the new deadline — Dec. 21 — to just days before Christmas.

As the new deadline approached, both parties were eager to escape for the holidays. During a Tuesday evening phone call, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed a plan to extend government funding into early February, delaying the border fight yet again. The Kentucky Republican told associates that he believed he received Trump’s blessing for the plan, sources familiar with the negotiations say. But White House officials were later unsure.

Trump’s lack of public support didn’t matter to the Senate. After Vice President Mike Pence assured Republicans that Trump would sign the funding bill with no wall money, the upper chamber passed the measure by voice vote late Wednesday night.

But even before the Senate vote, House GOP leaders knew they had a problem. A majority of Republicans opposed any bill that didn’t have wall money. A tentative whip check Wednesday night showed broad GOP opposition — not only from Freedom Caucus-types but more traditional Republicans who typically align with the leadership.

At the Capitol Hill Club that night, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney started buttonholing his former colleagues to gauge their thoughts on the spending proposal. The former lawmaker who once cheered shutdowns was now on the other side of the coin — but he quickly learned at the GOP hangout that his old friends hate the Senate-passed bill.

By the next morning, during a closed-door Republican conference meeting, the objections reached a crescendo. House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack, a staunch leadership ally who hasn’t spoken up in conference during eight years in Congress, stood to encourage leaders to fight for the wall.

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” he read from a John Stuart Mills passage. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”

Texas Republican Roger Williams quoted legendary Texas Christian University coach Dutch Meyer, whom he said his deceased father used to parrot in times of hardship: “Fight ‘em until hell freezes over. Then fight ‘em on the ice!”

At one point, McCarthy tried to argue that he wanted to have a vote on the wall funding last week. Someone in the room shouted “bullshit!”

“Conference is in full rebellion,” one lawmaker texted. “I’ve never seen a conference meeting like that,” said another.

It was in the middle of this GOP venting session that the president called Ryan. The president had just spoken with Meadows again. And after watching Fox News and other conservative commentators’ criticism of the strategy late into the evening, he was having second thoughts about delaying the border fight.

He then turned his ire on GOP leaders publicly.

“When I begrudgingly signed the Omnibus Bill, I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership,” Trump wrote on Twitter, just after the conversation with Ryan. “Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries – but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!”

That’s when about a dozen House GOP lawmakers were summoned to the White House to try to hash out a plan. Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) agued that the House had to push for $5 billion in wall funding because they told voters they would. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) warned of potential consequences to a wall-fueled shutdown in suburban districts like her own, where the party suffered a serious bloodbath on Election Night.

Republican Study Committee Chair Mark Walker, a new conservative member of the leadership team, encouraged the president to frame whatever happened as a sincere attempt to protect the American people. The North Carolina Republican also noted that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi might try to rub it in their faces if the House couldn’t get the votes to pass a stop-gap with wall money.

Shahira Knight, a top Trump aide, interjected several times to float a more pragmatic approach. The White House legislative affairs chief suggested that House Republicans should perhaps go for a lower number that had a greater possibility of passing the Senate.

Meadows disagreed, arguing that $5 billion was possible, according to two sources in the room.

At one point, someone warned that a shutdown would benefit Democrats. But Trump said he was fine with that. He blessed the change in strategy, noting that his fans want the wall — and so did he.

“He was embracing it. He was at peace with it,” said one source in the room of Trump’s mood. “I think he was trying to go along with the McConnell-Ryan strategy… and it wasn’t natural for him. He is more of a rabble rouser…. We asked him today, ‘Mr. President, are you sure you’re 100 percent committed to this?’ He was a kid in a candy store.”

That was it. Ryan left the room, walked outside to a group of reporters and delivered a very different message than he, McConnell and McCarthy initially settled on.

“The president said he will not sign this bill,” Ryan said. “So we are going to go back and work on adding border security to this.”

The House passed a bill with wall funding Thursday night but it’s going nowhere fast in the Senate. Congress has until Friday at midnight to prevent a shutdown, the third in Trump’s presidency and all under GOP control of Congress.

Eliana Johnson and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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