Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

As shutdown deadline looms, Republicans are lost without a map

Updated

A week ago today, Donald Trump held a rather dramatic meeting with Democratic congressional leaders about how and whether to prevent a government shutdown. The Republican president, true to form, insisted that Congress approve $5 billion in taxpayer funds for construction of a giant border wall – and he blamed Democrats for standing in the way.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer took turns explaining to Trump that the votes for his priority simply aren’t there, even in the GOP-led House. This exchange stood out:

PELOSI: There are no votes in the House, a majority of votes, for a wall – no matter where you start.

SCHUMER: That is exactly right. You don’t have the votes in the House.

TRUMP: If I needed the votes for the wall in the House, I would have them — in one session, it would be done.

PELOSI: Well, then go do it. Go do it.

The soon-to-be House Speaker effectively dared Trump to have the House pass the bill he’s eager to sign – regardless of its Senate prospects – because Pelosi knew what Trump didn’t: the votes really aren’t there.

The president didn’t believe her. He should have. The Washington Post  reported overnight, “House Republicans last week considered putting legislation on the floor that would offer $5 billion for a border wall as Trump has demanded. But Hill leadership eventually told the president that there were not enough votes to pass it.”

Trump was apparently working under the assumption that he could simply snap his fingers and direct the Republican-led House to approve spending for a wall. Both parties’ leaders have now told him he’s wrong. It’s a reminder of something Greg Sargent noted yesterday: the president has not yet come to terms with just how weak he’s become.

All of which brings us to the question of what’s poised to happen. After all, the deadline for the next government shutdown is Friday – as in, three days from now – and no one seems to believe policymakers are near a resolution to this fight.

Trump’s position is that he won’t sign a spending package unless it includes wall funding. Since Congress isn’t going to give the president what he wants, one of three things will happen: (1) Trump will back down; (2) Trump will shut down the government and then back down later; or (3) they’ll agree to kick the can down the road for a couple of weeks and renew the debate in the new year.

At least for now, Republicans still control all of the levers of power. What’s their plan? They haven’t the foggiest idea.

Congressional Republicans struggled Monday to find a way to persuade President Trump to back off a public threat to shut down the government over border wall money, staying largely in the dark over the impasse that could halt pay for hundreds of thousands of federal workers by the end of the week.

At the White House, Trump has remained disinclined to support even stopgap measures that would keep federal government operations running for a week or two, told by his closest advisers that he would have even less leverage when Democrats take control of the House next month. Trump is also bolstered by support of rank-and-file Border Patrol agents, whose union leader told the president in a recent Oval Office conversation that they would back a wall-induced shutdown if the dispute came to that point.

All that has left Republican lawmakers eager to avoid a shutdown unsure whether Trump would ultimately come around to at least one option that would end the impasse before Friday. Without a resolution that the president could sign before midnight Friday, roughly 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed or forced to work without pay in a partial shutdown that Trump has already — and proudly — claimed as his own.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose job includes wrangling GOP votes, conceded, “If there is (a plan to avoid shutdown), I’m not aware of it.”

A Politico report added, “Senate Republicans are searching for a way out of the impending partial government shutdown. But they are waiting for President Donald Trump to weigh in before making a move, and he appears to be in no rush to help them out.”

My best guess is that Trump, short on options and leverage, will grudgingly accept a stopgap measure – called a “continuing resolution” – which he will complain bitterly about while signing.

The alternative would be a Christmas shutdown, which the president would be fully responsible for, which would be based on one of his least popular ideas, and which would only delay an inevitable concession of defeat.

Tick tock.