Trump Just Lost His Leverage for Building a Wall

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to realize it, but his claim to any leverage on the shutdown is officially dead after two Senate votes on reopening the government failed Thursday afternoon. The question now: Will Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans let him twist in the wind, bleeding away support little by little while the nation continues to suffer the consequences of the closure? Or will they finally move to end this fiasco?

First, here’s what the Senate did. Neither Trump’s plan nor the Democratic alternative reached the 60 votes needed to defeat filibusters. But two Republicans — Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Utah’s Mike Lee — opposed Trump’s bill; only one Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, voted for it. With one absent Democrat and two missing Republicans, that meant a narrow 50-to-47 margin. The point of Trump’s proposal was supposedly to demonstrate that he could pick off enough Democrats by floating a measure labeled as a compromise. However, since the plan added restrictions on asylum and on Temporary Protected Status, and offered very limited protections, there was very little to tempt Democrats who may have wanted a deal. Instead, the vote demonstrated only that there is no easy bargain to be made on Trump’s terms. Giving Democrats very little — enough to bring over just one vote — cost Trump two Republican votes.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ clean funding bill to reopen the government while negotiations continue on border safety, a bill that had passed the House easily, did well in the Senate as six Republicans joined every Democrat to get a 52-to-44 margin. That’s far short of 60. But it’s a solid majority, and a bigger one than Trump’s bill got, despite the Republican’s 53-47 majority in the chamber. 

So the government remains closed because the Senate majority party is successfully killing by filibuster the most viable path to reopening it, which is a measure that has some fair claims to being bipartisan, and definitely has a majority in both chambers of Congress. Various versions of the Democrats’ clean bill have passed repeatedly in the House, each time with full Democratic support and a handful of Republican votes.

There hasn’t been a House vote on the Trump plan, but based on the Senate vote it’s a fair guess that it would suffer more Republican defections than it would gain Democrats crossing over.

With any normal White House, we would be at the end game now. Some kind of face-saving “compromise” would be floated that would let the president claim he had made a deal, and both houses of Congress would produce overwhelming majorities for it. 

Of course, with any normal president, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. Trump’s belief that an extended shutdown would somehow force Democrats to give in to him was always a poor gamble. At this point, there’s really no reason for Democrats to back down and multiple reasons for Republicans to find a way out (public opinion blaming Trump and his party for the shutdown, the president’s approval ratings dropping, and far more Democratic unity in Congress). 

But Trump isn’t a normal president, and he’s perfectly capable of inflicting further punishment on the nation (and his own political prospects) in the improbable hope that somehow he can still force congressional Democrats to buckle. Even though he has no plausible plan for making that happen.

It’s still not clear what McConnell and Senate Republicans want. Maybe this was all a set-up to demonstrate to Trump how bad his position is. It’s also possible, however, that the purpose of Thursday’s floor action was merely to give everyone a chance to cast votes they wanted to cast while leaving everything else untouched. Or it could be some combination of both. We don’t know whether Republican senators behind the scenes are urging McConnell to hang tough — or looking for an exit.

After the vote, there was talk of a three-week funding bill to allow negotiations to continue. McConnell and Chuck Schumer were apparently trying to reach some sort of deal. Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis reports that about eight Senate Republicans have backed such a move; my guess is that after the votes, that number has increased, perhaps substantially. 

Trump, however, responded to the votes by demanding that any short-term bill include “prorated” funding for his wall. In general, his remarks to the press indicated that he entirely misunderstood what had happened. He bragged about getting Manchin’s vote on his bill without seeming to understand that losing two Republicans and getting only one Democrat was a setback, and he totally dismissed the even larger defeat he suffered on the second vote.

In the wake of the Senate votes, the White House is preparing a draft proclamation for Trump to declare a national emergency along the southern border — and has identified more than $7 billion in potential funds for his border wall, CNN reported late Thursday, citing internal documents.

Democrats have said from the beginning that they’re still willing to bargain over border security once the government is fully operating. They’re apparently putting together a proposal to spend roughly as much money as Trump asked for to fund the wall — about $5.5 billion this year — but to pay for what they want, such as “smart” technology and funding for the overall immigration system rather than physical barriers. The votes Thursday reduce the pressure on Democrats to come up with a viable alternative, and increase pressure on Senate Republicans to find a way out. Trump just doesn’t have the votes to get what he wants, even though he (now barely) has the votes to keep the longest partial shutdown in U.S. history going.

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.

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