U.S. President Donald Trump, center, gestures as Alveda King, niece of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during a signing ceremony. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Picks Shutdown Fight Just as His Leverage Is Dwindling

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is picking one of the biggest fights of his presidency just as his leverage in Washington is about to hit a new low and even though he has no clear path to victory.

Trump’s sudden decision to dig in against a Senate-passed stopgap spending bill that didn’t fund a border wall could shut down the government until at least Jan. 3, when Republicans lose control of the House and Democrat Nancy Pelosi is expected to become the House speaker.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough Friday or over the weekend, Washington could be heading for a lengthy shutdown with the president already facing new discontent from some in his party.

Trump’s stand on wall funding is being cheered by House Republicans, but Senate Republicans have been unsettled by the president’s decision this week to abandon the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and the subsequent decision by Defense Secretary James Mattis to quit in protest of the president’s foreign policy. The stock market is in the middle of the worst December since 1931, and the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been inching ever closer to the Oval Office.

As for leverage, Trump and the GOP have squandered much of it.

Trump missed an opportunity in February when nearly every Senate Democrat backed a $25 billion package for border security, including his wall, in return for a path to citizenship for people brought here illegally as children by their parents. Trump, on the advice of immigration hardliners, demanded a package that also included deep cuts to legal immigration, and left empty-handed.

Trump could have demanded Republicans pass a so-called budget reconciliation package, which only needs 50 Senate votes, to create a new mandatory spending program for the wall, as proposed by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and others. He didn’t, although it’s unclear whether Trump could have found 50 Senate Republicans to vote for it.

And Trump’s last-ditch push Friday for Republicans to use the "nuclear option" and end Senate filibusters entirely was immediately shot down by several senior Republican senators.

Some senators were still holding out hope for a compromise that would avert a shutdown, but time is running out. Congress could, for example, pass a very short-term stopgap to get past the Christmas holiday, but there’s no sign such a measure is being discussed or that Trump would sign it.

Part of the problem for Trump is that his own budget included $1.6 billion for border upgrades -- a number Senate Democrats agreed to fund. But Trump decided Thursday that wasn’t enough, upending a bipartisan deal.

GOP leaders themselves had little appetite for the wall -- indeed, they rarely utter the word "wall" and kept pushing Trump to defer the border fight until after the midterm elections. And after the elections, they promptly prepared to cave, declaring that a shutdown would be a mistake and recoiling from Trump’s declaration he would be "proud" to shut down the government.

But when it appeared Trump was ready to go along with a stopgap that would have funded the government through Feb. 8 without the wall money, conservative pundits including Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter pilloried him. House conservatives Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows urged the president to risk a shutdown instead before Pelosi and the Democrats take over.

"This is tyranny of talk radio. How do you deal with that?" asked retiring Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker said Trump’s pivot was "juvenile" and came after McConnell moved ahead with the clean spending bill with assurances Trump would sign it.

But late Thursday, Meadows told reporters he didn’t see the advantage for Republicans of waiting until Feb. 8 to have the fight, sensing leverage would flow to the Democrats.

Meadows questioned how long Democrats could hold out against an extra billion or two for border security after the government shuts down. And for now, Trump is listening.

By Friday afternoon, after meeting with Trump, McConnell was back on board with the president’s latest strategy, blaming Democrats for caving to the "open-borders left" in opposing the additional $5 billion in border funding added by the House GOP and forcing Senate votes.

But Republicans suggested Trump didn’t present any strategy for next steps during a meeting at the White House Friday.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri didn’t attend that meeting, but said his understanding is that Trump had three messages: that he wants to end the Senate filibuster for legislation, that he is okay with a shutdown and that “the wall matters and that it will be beautiful when built.”

The Endgame

With the next presidential election still two years off, the political stakes in a shutdown may be at a low ebb, and both newly ascendant House Democrats and the president have incentives to consolidate their bases ahead of the fights to come. That means it could be a while before they come together on a plan to reopen the government.

That would take one of four scenarios: Democrats give in to Trump, Trump caves to Democrats, Republicans in Congress force Trump to cave or a compromise is reached.

Overriding a presidential veto will get easier in the House on Jan. 3, but would still require large numbers of Republicans in both chambers to defy the president.

As for compromise, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer remain adamant they won’t fund the wall, and Trump appears adamant the government will stay closed until they do.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.