The Government Shutdown Fight Explained

A stalemate between President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall threatens a partial government shutdown. As of Friday afternoon, there was little optimism that a deal to keep the government open could be struck before a midnight deadline.

Here’s what’s going on:

  • Mr. Trump has threatened to veto any spending package that doesn’t include at least $5 billion in funding for the wall. Democrats, whose support in the Senate is necessary to muster the 60 votes needed to pass any funding bill, are equally determined not to give it to him.
  • Democrats say they will agree to a continuation of last year’s $1.6 billion border security funding level, which includes $1.3 billion for pedestrian fencing, but not a penny more.
  • For the third time this year, Mr. Trump and Congressional Democrats find themselves hemmed in by political bases that reject any concessions to the other side as unacceptable.

A Tumultuous Week

Over the course of a tumultuous week, Mr. Trump has lurched between veto threats to signaling willingness to compromise, and back again. By Friday afternoon, both sides seemed to have dug in their heels.

“Shutdown today if Democrats do not vote for Border Security!” Mr. Trump tweeted Friday morning.

“President Trump: you will not get your wall,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer shot back on the Senate floor later in the day. “Abandon your shutdown strategy. You’re not getting the wall today, next week or on January 3rd, when Democrats take control of the House.”

Last week, President Trump said he was unmovable in his resolve to veto any bill to keep the government open that did not include at least $5 billion to fund the wall. Perhaps recognizing the futility of securing even one Democratic votes in the Senate, much less nine, by Tuesday, the White House shifted course.  In a Fox News interview Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that they might not need the full $5 billion after all. “We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion (for a border wall),” she said.

Senate Republicans saw an opening and rushed to pass a short-term spending measure that would extend existing funding until early February, essentially punting the fight to next year. Lawmakers were optimistic that Mr. Trump would sign it. But, after a fierce backlash among the President’s abase — conservative commentator Ann Coulter, one of Mr. Trump’s earliest supporters, denounced him as “gutless” — the White House reversed tact.

“This utterly unlikely and, at least for president, in many ways, a not particularly attractive presidential candidate beat the most qualified woman ever to run for the office, basically on one promise: the promise to build a wall and never backing down on that,” Ann Coulter said on the Daily Caller’s podcast.

Thursday morning, Mr. Trump summoned key House Republicans to the White House and renewed his vow to veto the Senate bill or anything else that fell short of the full $5 billion in wall funding. At Mr. Trump’s insistence, House Republicans passed a largely symbolic funding bill that included $5 billion in wall funding. It landed in the Senate with a thud.

Mr. Trump spent early Friday morning on Twitter goading Democrats. “If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!” he wrote.

The Democrats Aren’t Going to Budge

Democrats have little political incentive to acquiesce to Mr. Trump’s demands. Fresh off a midterm election victory, Democrats are in no mood to cave:

  • For the left, opposing the wall is a proxy for opposing Mr. Trump. Any concession on the wall is unacceptable to the Democratic base. Ms. Pelosi has only recently put down an insurgency from members of her party’s left wing, which revolted against her election as speaker. There’s no interest in pouring salt in those wounds.
  • If a shutdown happens, Mr. Trump will shoulder much of the blame. Last week, in a wild televised Oval Office negotiating session with Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the house, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, Mr. Trump said he was perfectly willing to accept responsibility for a shutdown. “If we don’t get what we want … I will shut down the government. Absolutely,” Mr. Trump said. “I am proud to shutdown the government for border security.” In a USA Today/Suffolk University poll out this week, 43% said they’d blame Mr. Trump and the Republicans for a shutdown while just 24% would blame Democrats.
  • Regardless of whose fault the shutdown is, political memory is short. We’re on our third shutdown this year. Few remember who was at fault. In February, Democrats took heat for forcing a shutdown over a legislative fix for DACA. Yet, they nevertheless went in to score big victories in the midterms. “Few people feel an impact from it in their own lives,” Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster, told Vox News. “They think it reflects Washington’s dysfunction, which they loathe, but it is still too distant from what hits home.”

What Will, and Won’t, Shut Down

If a shutdown happens, some, but not all of the government will shutdown. Congress has passed appropriations bills funding about three quarters of the government, including the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services. But, funding bills for nine other agencies remains mired in the impasse over wall funding.

  • The Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services, which have already been funded will be largely unaffected.
  • At agencies that must shut down, non-essential workers will be furloughed. In the past Congress has usually paid them in arrears.
  • Employees designated as essential personnel will continue to come to work. Air Traffic Controllers, border patrol agents, and TSA agents are all considered essential personnel.
  • National Parks will probably close, and the IRS will furlough a large portion of their workforce.
  • Mandatory spending programs do not require annual appropriations. So, Social Security and Medicaid checks will arrive as usual.
  • Federal courts have independent sources of funding that should allow them to stay open for at least three weeks or so.

The Bottom Line

On Capitol Hill at least, neither side really wants a shutdown. Even if Mr. Trump is spoiling for a fight, war-weary Congressional Republicans mostly just want to go home. After a bruising midterm, there’s little appetite for a big showdown over the Christmas Holiday. Yet, the divide between the two sides seems wider than any mutually agreeable compromise can bridge. And neither side is ready to cave.

With hours to go before the stroke of midnight, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers gamely continued to search for a last minute way out. In a darkened West Wing, there was little sign of activity other than the whir of the cleaning staff’s vacuum cleaners. A reporter, stumbling upon Kevin Hassett, one of the President’s economic advisers, on the White House driveway asked what would happen next. “It’s up to the president,” Hassett replied.


Recent Articles

Related Stories