Congressional Republicans return to Washington on Tuesday with a singular goal for September: avoid a government shutdown.
But with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, that’s easier said than done.
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For months, GOP leaders have been laying the groundwork to avoid a shutdown on Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year and just five weeks before Election Day. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and even Vice President Mike Pence are already quietly lobbying Trump to postpone a shutdown fight over his border wall with Mexico until after the election, Hill and Trump administration sources say.
But any carefully laid plans could be for naught, as Trump receives contradictory advice from rival factions in the West Wing. Some White House officials are confident that Trump will sign spending bills keeping the government open.
A smaller subset of immigration hard-liners inside the White House, however, are encouraging Trump to fight on the border wall issue now, while Republicans still control Congress. These officials think the House majority is already gone — and they have encouraged Trump to hold the line for his border wall and secure a win while he can, according to multiple sources on Capitol Hill and in the administration.
The issue thus becomes whether Trump will try to help himself politically by provoking a shutdown over the border wall, or give some political cover to GOP lawmakers in tough reelection battles.
Trump and congressional leaders are trying to set up a meeting for next week to hash out these issues with Democrats, according to several Hill sources.
But a shutdown now would almost certainly cost Republicans their House majority. Democrats are currently favored to win the lower chamber. And GOP lawmakers are already being dragged down by Trump’s abysmal approval ratings and the criminal cases involving Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. There’s a sense that a shutdown would be the final nail in the coffin for House Republicans.
“A shutdown’s not good for anybody, whether Republicans or Democrats,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “I want to do everything I can to avoid a shutdown.”
The shutdown showdown comes amid a heated confirmation battle for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. McConnell and Trump want Kavanaugh in place before the court opens a new session in October, but Democrats — concerned about abortion rights, health care and executive power — are vowing to do everything they can to stop or slow his confirmation.
There’s little they can do unless any Senate Republicans come out against Kavanaugh, which hasn’t happened so far. And with Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey preparing to name a successor to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was laid to rest over the weekend, Republicans will have another vote for Kavanaugh, making his confirmation all but inevitable.
The House, meanwhile, returns from a five-week summer recess drowning in a new wave of scandal. Two of its own, Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, were indicted during the August break for misuse of campaign funds and insider trading, respectively. Some senior Republicans worry those charges will play into House Democrats’ “corrupt Republicans” campaign narrative, aimed at wooing critical swing voters.
But foremost on Republicans’ minds is the looming spending battle. On Thursday afternoon, Ryan told GOP members during a conference call that passing appropriations bills would be their main focus in September.
Since predicting Trump has become something of a fool’s errand, GOP leaders have been preparing for the worst-case scenario, taking steps to minimize any shutdown damage by passing “minibus” appropriations bills that fund several agencies at a time. Trump is expected to sign those smaller packages, according to Republican sources on the Hill and in the administration, ensuring that at least most agencies continue operating on a normal schedule.
But GOP leaders know that passing one particular bill — funding for the Department of Homeland Security — is impossible if Trump wants his border wall now. Senate Democrats will never back Trump’s demand for $5 billion in wall funding for fiscal 2019. And since Republicans need Democratic votes for passage in the upper chamber, GOP leaders have decided to delay the fight and merely extend DHS funding for a few weeks until after the election.
But the question is whether Trump will go along. If he doesn’t, and he vetoes the DHS extension, Washington could experience a partial government shutdown just days before voters head to the polls.
When Ryan and McConnell pitched their delay-DHS-funding strategy to the president earlier this summer, Trump greenlighted the plan. But just a few days later, Trump seemed to backtrack, warning that he would not sign any more spending bills without his wall.
“I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!” he tweeted in late July. “Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!”
Trump, however, didn’t indicate in the tweet when he wanted the shutdown.
Some Republicans say Trump wouldn’t dare do it now.
“I don’t think that there’s any way that that’s going to happen,” predicted retiring Rep. Tom Rooney, a member of House Appropriations Committee. “He might be saying it on the campaign trail because it’s a good sound bite, but I think in the end he has enough people around him, like the vice president, who know that’s a bad idea … especially before the election.”
The Florida Republican added: “Putting that on people’s plate for November, I can tell you some of my friends in close districts really don’t need an extra thing to fight.”
But interviews with more than a half-dozen GOP leadership sources over the past week revealed that even some in the top echelons of Republican leadership are not so sure. There’s a sense among some that lawmakers need to just pass as many spending bills as possible and pray that Trump signs them all. For others, the question centers more on how many agencies will be shuttered than whether any will be closed at all.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” one senior Republican source said.
During a Senate GOP lunch last week, Pence suggest Trump was happy with lawmakers’ current progress on spending talks.
Pence “didn’t say specifically that the president was pleased with everything, but he alluded to that. That’s what we gathered,” Shelby said.
Interestingly, even top House conservatives — usually shutdown cheerleaders — have not encouraged Trump to have the fight out before the election. A House conservative source said Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) are itching to secure immigration wins for the president — but they think it’s better to wait until after the midterms.
“There is a general understanding that there will be a lot of action in the lame duck,” the source said. “These are battles that can be left to after the midterms.”
Without those two encouraging a shutdown fight this September, GOP leaders have a better shot at persuading Trump to hold off.
Elana Schor contributed to this report.