Republicans Continue to Stumble Toward a Shutdown

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We’re closing in on the Friday deadline for Congress to prevent the unfunded portion of the government from shutting down, and the prospects aren’t good. The Senate has done its part by passing a temporary spending bill that would last until early February. But on Thursday, President Donald Trump told House Speaker Paul Ryan that he’d veto it. 

It’s a fitting, and pathetic, end for the 115th Congress and the first two years of Trump’s presidency.

The procedural details are still in flux. The House may try to pass a version of the temporary spending bill with the $5 billion Trump has requested for his border wall. Earlier, it seemed there weren’t enough votes; we’ll see if Republicans even get the bill to the House floor for a vote. If it does pass the House, it certainly doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to overcome a Democratic filibuster, and it probably doesn’t have enough to win a simple majority, meaning Democrats won’t have to filibuster to defeat it. As a result, either the House (and Trump) will relent and pass a short-term measure to keep the doors open or the government will shut down.

At this point, a possible government shutdown would not be part of any kind of bargaining strategy for obtaining funding for the border wall. That’s long gone. Republicans don’t have the votes, and they have no leverage to find them. If they refuse to pass the temporary funding bill, there’s zero expectation they’ll get what they want; instead, affected agencies will just close, presumably until Democrats take over the House majority on Jan. 3. 

In other words, any shutdown now would be just a public statement that the wall is so important to Trump and Republicans that they’re willing to inconvenience Americans and waste money (shutdowns are costly) to make their point. This is a temper tantrum, not a bargaining strategy.

That’s certainly true of Trump and what appears to be just a handful of House Freedom Caucus types who really want the shutdown. Other House Republicans are simply scared of their own shadows. As we see with one retiring Pennsylvania representative:

Lawmakers like to talk about Congress as the “first branch” of government, and members of the House have long prided themselves on their special constitutional role in initiating government spending decisions. Not anymore.

The truth is that if everybody who knows better told Ryan to bring the temporary spending measure up for a vote, it would pass with an overwhelming, veto-proof margin. The speaker shouldn’t need any such instructions: He surely knows that his side isn’t going to win a last-minute shutdown battle, and he should be telling his members that they should just get it done and get out of town, regardless of what the president might say. 

Instead, once again, mainstream conservatives are terrified of the president, or perhaps of being accused by the Freedom Caucus radicals of being RINOs or Nancy Pelosi’s stooges. What’s in it for them? If they really do shut down the government for two weeks until Democrats have the majority, then they can vote against whatever the Democrats oppose. Sure, they’ll be handing Pelosi leverage — as they’ve already done by failing to complete these spending bills on Oct. 1, when they were originally due – but at least they won’t have to vote with her. And Ryan, who will be gone, can pretend he stood strong for Republican principles, even if the reality was that he once again passed the buck. 

There’s still plenty of time for Republicans to settle down and behave themselves. Or for Ryan to stand up and act like a responsible public servant. Perhaps it will happen. Then again, we’ve all seen the record of this Congress. 

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.