The Shutdown Is Nuts So Senators Vote for More of It: Roundtable

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Senate today rejected two bills — one backed by Republicans, the other by Democrats — aimed at reopening the federal government. Bloomberg Opinion’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Francis Wilkinson discuss the consequences — for political leaders, federal employees and for everyone else. What should congressional Republicans do now? How should Democrats respond? 

Ramesh Ponnuru: As expected, Frank, the Senate votes on legislation to reopen the government — either on President Trump’s terms or Democrats’ — have failed, and so the government shutdown is continuing with no end in sight. The sheer irrationality of this situation is not, I think, fully appreciated.

The Republicans may not be building a wall yet, but they have built a maze of contradictions. They’re saying that the shutdown is the Democrats’ fault (for not agreeing to a border wall, or at least to increased physical barriers at the U.S.-Mexico border) and that it’s not causing serious problems to the country or to voters.

But if it’s the Democrats’ fault, why is it important to minimize the harm it’s doing? If it’s no big deal, why the need to pin it on the Democrats?

House Republicans have advanced legislation to get federal workers their first paychecks for the year but Democrats have blocked it. Both parties, then, believe that the more painful the shutdown is for voters, the more politically painful it will be for Republicans.

But if Republicans take that view, why do they think the shutdown gives them leverage in the first place? Why do they think the Democrats have any political incentive to reach a deal that reopens the government?

I think the implicit assumption behind the vote on paychecks is correct, which means that this shutdown is likely to end only when Republicans cry uncle. And I don’t think they are going to do it until they start feeling more heat from Republican voters. Which probably means the shutdown is going to continue until it affects more and more governmental functions.

Francis Wilkinson: I’m not sure how to deal with this, Ramesh: You’re more pessimistic about GOP irrationality than I am. Yes, both votes went down. But the GOP bill fared slightly worse. 

This stalemate is not going to be solved by Trump, obviously, or by the various incompetents he surrounds himself with. But it might be solved by Mitch McConnell. Six Republican senators voted for the Democratic bill to reopen government, so apparently some of the federal workers feeling pain are members of the GOP caucus.

I’m hopeful that McConnell will (a) have sufficient influence with Trump, who no doubt would like to stop bleeding in public, and (b) have the desire to end this shutdown and move on, following the Ponnuru theory that no good will accrue to Republicans from this fiasco, in the short or long term.

You, however, have a better feel for GOP senators than I do. So I’m worried that you think we’re in this for a much longer haul. Can’t McConnell don a cape and save the day?

Ponnuru:  Sarah Huckabee Sanders says that Trump won’t sign any funding bill without “a large down payment on the wall.” It’s phrased to sound rough but it is a retreat: It means Trump will sign a bill that doesn’t give him all the border funding he wants.

Let’s assume Trump is not going to reverse this concession in a few hours. Why would the Democrats agree to give Trump anything to save face? A lot of Democrats want him to lose this fight he picked, and humiliatingly.

I am sure McConnell would like the shutdown to end. I am sure he also does not want to let himself be Trump’s fall guy on the border wall. I think more Republican senators have to fold to accept a no-deal surrender.

What will that take? See my earlier answer for my guess. But I would like to be wrong, because this shutdown seems to me to be inflicting harm without leading to anything worth having.

Wilkinson: Democrats are in danger of taking a share of blame, too. For one, their messaging has focused on the wall instead of on the principle that in a republican system you don’t shut down the government when voters empower the opposition party to oppose your policies.

The wall is unpopular, but not massively so, and to many Americans the notion of a physical barrier makes intuitive sense (albeit less so to people who live along the border). But when the president says, “I will be the one to shut it down,” on live television, it does make the blame game easier to win for his opponents.

Democrats won’t prolong the pain of this ordeal if Trump and McConnell can offer them a palatable solution: It’s not in their nature or their interest. Democrats are already suggesting they may pony up more funds for border security, which seems like their start at a viable compromise. If McConnell can encourage Trump to chase after a new squirrel, and leave this problem to the pros, maybe a resolution is within reach.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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