Trump Flirts With a Government Shutdown Republicans Are Racing to Avoid

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is asking advisers whether it would be good politics to provoke an October government shutdown fight over money for his border wall, even though Republicans in Congress say a closure before the midterm elections in November would backfire.

Republican leaders thought they had persuaded Trump weeks ago to delay any such confrontation until later in the year, but the president raised the prospect of an earlier showdown in conversations in recent days with at least three aides and outside advisers, according to people familiar with the matter.

Trump appeared open to a shutdown Wednesday during a White House meeting with Republican congressional leaders. “If it happens, it happens,” he said in answer to a reporter’s question. “If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do what has to be done.”

Trump Flirts With a Government Shutdown Republicans Are Racing to Avoid

Trump has long said a "good shutdown" may be needed to get his full $23 billion in funds for a border wall. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other conservative lawmakers have told the president in recent weeks that a shutdown before the election is a bad idea, according to another person familiar with the matter.

After a meeting with Trump on Wednesday, McConnell told Fox News there’s “no chance” of a shutdown.

With Democrats threatening to end the GOP majority in the House and several Senate seats for both parties in play in November, Republicans see a smoother government funding process as a way to show voters they can govern. Along the way they have ignored Trump’s request for deep cuts to government programs as they seek bipartisan cooperation.

Congressional Republicans are trying to complete full-year funding bills for most governmental departments by Oct. 1, while postponing decisions on more contentious homeland security programs until after November, as a way to avoid a shutdown.

‘Better Off’

"Our leaders have tried in conversations with him to convince him that is the best outcome and makes the most sense," Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican, said in an interview Tuesday. "He still occasionally tweets about a government shutdown over the wall funding and that sort of thing, but I think in the end he’s -- I believe at least, and his team -- of a view that we’re all better off if we can keep the government funded."

Trump Flirts With a Government Shutdown Republicans Are Racing to Avoid

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, predicted a shutdown would be avoided. “We’re working hard on it,” he said.

At least some portion of the government funding Republicans intend to pass by Oct. 1 would be in the form of a stopgap spending measure that would provide at least some border wall funding by simply extending the appropriation level from the current fiscal year.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama said the White House hasn’t indicated whether it would accept postponing wall funding.

“Our leaders have made clear it’s in our interest to fund the government. That’s been my message to him,” Shelby told reporters, referring to Trump. “The border wall is toxic to some people. That may have to wait until a later date.”

Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, predicted there wouldn’t be a shutdown and that a stopgap continuing resolution would be signed. “I think we’ll fund the government,” he said. “A few of the minor bills may pass but the rest will be a CR.”

President’s Promise

Trump promised McConnell and Ryan in a July 25 meeting that he wouldn’t force a shutdown, which would close national parks and curtail some government services, before the midterm elections, lawmakers and aides have said.

The top Republican leaders argued that doing so would cloud the clear victory of a Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the Supreme Court, and raise questions about the ability of Republicans to govern. Instead, they have tried to sell Trump on the idea of enacting multiple appropriations bills by the Oct. 1 deadline for the first time in more than a decade.

Days after the Ryan-McConnell meeting, Trump said publicly he would have "no problem doing a shutdown" over border funding although he didn’t specify that he would veto a stopgap spending bill without the funds before the election.

Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, predicted a stopgap spending bill at the end of the month because there are few legislative days left in it. 

Trump Flirts With a Government Shutdown Republicans Are Racing to Avoid

The federal government already shut down twice this year: once in January when Senate Democrats tried to force Trump to agree to protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and again briefly in February when Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky delayed a vote to protest an increase in spending levels.

Ryan and McConnell have pursued a step-by-step strategy designed to delay any confrontation over the wall until after November.

The first test of their plan comes Wednesday as lawmakers meet face-to-face to negotiate the first package of fiscal 2019 spending bills. The bills, financing the legislative branch, energy and water programs and the department of Veterans Affairs has been stalled over veterans health spending levels.

Six more of the 12 annual spending bills could be completed by the end of September for a presidential signature, with only the Departments of State, Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security continuing to function at their current funding levels until after the election, under the strategy.

As funding for each part of the government, including popular parts like the Pentagon and National Park Service, is secured though October 2019, the impact of any shutdown lessens.

A key hurdle for this second stage of the plan would be getting House Republicans to go along with a Health and Human Services spending bill that does not contain new restrictions on Obamacare and Planned Parenthood.

On the wall, the House spending panel has backed spending $5 billion next year while the Senate has backed $1.6 billion. The House proposal, worked out in talks with the White House budget office, falls short of the total $23 billion Trump has sought.

Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who is the lead negotiator on the first package of spending bills, said a Trump shutdown would hurt his party. "The public is sick of the chaos," she said. "Business needs predictability."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.