President Donald Trump just made it nearly impossible for Republicans to blame Democrats for an increasingly likely partial government shutdown. But they’re going to try anyway.
House Republicans are considering passing a stopgap spending bill that provides $5 billion for Trump’s border wall, essentially daring Senate Democrats to accept it or face the fallout of any funding lapse next week, according to multiple GOP sources.
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But Democrats — and some Republicans — aren’t taking the gambit seriously after Trump boasted that he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over his wall demands during an extraordinary Oval Office clash with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Tuesday.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was taken aback when asked if the president’s negotiating style had aided Republicans: “Everybody wants to blame it on the other party, always. That’s what you typically do. That’s out the window now.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) conceded that neither side had made any apparent effort to compromise and that Democrats were skillfully sidestepping the GOP’s efforts to pin the blame on them.
“I think Sen. Schumer was very shrewd in his efforts to make certain that whatever blame is to be had for a shutdown doesn’t rest with the Democrats,” added Moran. “It’s disappointing that the outcome is what it is at the moment.”
Coming off a remarkable televised exchange between Trump, Schumer and Pelosi, congressional Republicans were reeling as they tried to adjust to the president’s stunning willingness to own an impending partial shutdown over his border wall demands. For weeks the GOP had been attacking Democrats for their unwillingness to help Trump shore up the border.
And with just a few words directed at Schumer, Trump laid all those plans to waste: “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.” Later in the day, Trump dug in even further, declaring: “I don’t mind owning that issue. … We’re closing it down for border security and I think I win that every single time.”
It’s the latest surprise from a president who has routinely upended the way Washington works. But Trump’s confidence, and his partnership with the congressional GOP, will be tested if roughly a quarter of the government ends up closing after next week without a bipartisan agreement.
A House GOP member who lost reelection said Trump’s performance on Tuesday “was unbelievable. I literally couldn’t believe a president of the United States was acting that crazy.” When asked why he didn’t come out publicly with his criticism, the soon-to-be-ex-lawmaker deadpanned “Hey, I gotta work, don’t I?”
Inside the White House, Schumer probed Trump about his end game during the private portion of their meeting. He noted that if the government shuts down, Pelosi will pass a bill restarting the government on Jan. 3, putting the onus on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to buckle or stick with Trump’s border fight.
“What do you think Mitch will do? Keep it shut down another month, another week?” Schumer asked Trump, according to a person briefed on the meeting. Trump did not reply, the person said, and did not completely rule out potentially passing stop-gap bills to avoid a shutdown.
Yet publicly, Trump is all in on the shutdown and almost portrayed it as an act of kindness toward Schumer, whose own caucus forced a brief funding lapse earlier this year. Trump said Schumer was “killed” over the episode.
“He doesn’t want to own it. I said rather than us debating who is owning it, I’ll take it. I’ll take it,” Trump said.
Yet that scuttles all the messaging work that Republicans have done in recent weeks. Over and over again, they’ve said Democrats would be the unreasonable party if the government shuts down over Trump’s border wall.
Now they are faced with something new altogether: A president who sees an upside to being blamed for furloughed workers and shuttered federal agencies in the name of fulfilling one of his key campaign promises.
House Republican leaders had told their rank-and-file members that there would be no votes on Monday and Tuesday of next week, anticipating a budget deal to keep the federal government open beyond the Dec. 21 deadline. But they may need to scrap those plans to give Trump billions for a border barrier, even if it faces no chance of getting through the Senate.
“Yes, we’d have the votes to pass it if we put it out there,” McCarthy declared, contradicting Pelosi’s taunts that the House can’t pass Trump’s bill. The California Republican — a close Trump ally who takes over as minority leader in in January — said he’s “always supported more money for border security.”
And some Trump backers quickly threw their lot in with the president, who ran counter to the immigration views of many in the GOP. They seem to trust his political acumen, no matter how counter-intuitive Trump’s move to tout a potential shutdown might be.
“I’m going to stick by President Trump. He needs to dig in, not give in. Let’s take it to the public,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “This liberal arrogance, I’ve had enough of it. Take it on. Stare it down, see what happens.”
Democrats say they aren’t feeling arrogant, but that they’ve already won the debate.
Pelosi crowed after the meeting to her Democratic members that they’d gotten Trump to own the shutdown and Schumer told reporters that it was now up to McConnell to “persuade” Trump not to enter into an intractable impasse.
And most Republicans were highly reluctant to join Trump in his “proud” stand to own a shutdown.
“I’ve never said that myself,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who has met repeatedly with Trump about the border wall. “I’m always trying to work to fund the government.”
Schumer has been firm since the election that gave Democrats the House: His caucus simply won’t give in to Trump’s demands, no matter what the GOP-controlled House does in its final days of the lame duck session.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) tried to fight back against the “Trump shutdown” narrative unfolding, despite the president’s own words. Scalise dismissed suggestions that Trump’s comments tie Republicans’ hands and argued that if Democrats are “for open borders, Pelosi ought to come out and say that.”
“If Pelosi and Schumer are against any attempt to make sure the president has the tools he needs to keep the country safe just because they want to try play some kind of political games, then we’ll keep battling this out,” Scalise said.
At a party lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Republicans tried to get back on the same page. They discussed how Democrats have previously supported larger amounts of money for border security, senators said. Afterward, GOP leaders came out to tell reporters of their strong support for the president’s border security demands.
And GOP leaders said that Trump’s quotes on Tuesday, which might have stuck to other presidents for months, will be forgotten if Democrats vote against a bill to fund Trump’s border wall in the coming days.
In other words, the blame game isn’t over yet.
“This is going to be the finger pointing exercise we always go through … irrespective of that interesting press conference,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. “I’m not sure I see the endgame at the moment.”