Republicans are desperate to avoid shutdown but fear crossing Trump
This dilemma raises the stakes for Senate Republicans as bipartisan border security negotiations begin in a bicameral congressional committee. They have to squeeze the best possible deal from confident Democrats, who oppose Trump’s top priority — building a wall along the Mexican border — and are convinced shutdown politics play to their advantage. Then, Republicans have to hope the notoriously fickle Trump approves and abandons threats to partially shutter the government again.
It’s a tall order, Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., conceded in an interview with reporters on Wednesday. The South Dakota Republican acknowledged that selling Trump on any emerging agreement would be a top priority in a bid to avert being forced to choose: Go along with another Trump-led government shutdown or join with Democrats to keep it open and risk alienating the GOP base and inviting 2020 primary challenges.
“My guess is, there will be efforts as the discussions go forward and offers are exchanged, probably, by our members — if it’s a good deal — to help persuade and convince the president it’s a good deal, too,” Thune said. “In the end, it’s got be something he’ll sign.”
Time is short. Trump agreed last Friday to reopen the government after a historic 35-day shutdown, essentially caving to Democrats’ demands. But the president only approved funding for three weeks to allow Congress some time to reach a deal on border security that meets his criteria. He has declined to rule out imposing another government shutdown if he doesn’t like what lawmakers draw up.
Privately, many Senate Republicans and other party insiders find the situation ridiculous. The issue isn’t so much deciding whether to agree to Trump’s demands on border security — they agree with him in concept. Rather, the challenge is determining what the president wants and then praying he sticks with it.
In December, Trump agreed to a bipartisan deal that provided significantly less than the $5.7 billion he was demanding for construction of a border wall. The next day, the president changed his mind after incurring criticism from leading conservatives and followed through with vows to shut down the government if the Democrats didn’t relent.
But committed Republican voters, the sort that tend to vote in GOP primaries, are with Trump, especially on visceral issues like immigration. They’re unlikely to be sympathetic to Republicans on Capitol Hill who complain that they deviated from the president because he was an unreliable negotiating partner. Recognizing that, some Senate Republicans are already making clear they will not support a border security deal that Trump rejects.
“Not me; period end of story,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said, when asked if he would consider breaking with the president on immigration if he thought the deal reached by the conference committee was sufficient. Tillis is up for re-election next year in a state Trump carried in 2016 and that hasn’t voted Democrat in a presidential election since 2008.
For now, Senate Republicans are hopeful that Trump will be reluctant to force another shutdown. Public polling consistently showed that a majority of voters blamed the president and Republicans in Congress for the impasse, even though Democrats refused to offer a counter proposal to Trump’s border security demands, instead insisting the government should be re-opened before any negotiating.
Republicans are trying to convince the president that another shutdown could bleed the GOP politically. While some Republicans view the possibility of Trump declaring a national emergency to sidestep Congress as a way to avoid a shutdown and avoid opposing the president, others in the party are warning that using these uncertain powers is equally politically perilous.
"It’s just a matter now of making sure the president feels as though his wishes have been honored and at the same time recognizing that this is a government that is divided," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said. "Reasonable adults are going to have to come to an acceptable middle ground."