Trump and Schumer had dug in after the president reversed course, renewed demand for taxpayer money
President Donald Trump’s decision to torpedo a bipartisan spending bill and demand $5.7 billion for the construction of a wall along the Mexico border led large parts of the federal government to shut down on Saturday, testing the political wills of Democrats and Republicans in the final days of 2018.
The White House and congressional leaders continued negotiations late Friday, but most House lawmakers were sent home before 7 p.m., making it impossible for them to vote on any agreement until Saturday. Funding for numerous agencies, including those that operate parks, homeland security, law enforcement, and transportation, expires at midnight.
It’s unclear how long a shutdown might last. Trump predicted earlier on Friday that it could drag on for a “very long time.”
The breakdown marked the most dramatic consequence of Washington’s new political dynamic. Trump saw the showdown over a wall as a necessary fight in order to try and deliver one of his core campaign promises.
Democrats, buttressed by big wins in the November midterm elections, have unified and are seeking to thwart his agenda. They have warned that his erratic, and at times impulsive, demands are unsettling financial markets, foreign allies, and even members of his own cabinet.
The Senate narrowly passed a procedural vote in the evening the Republican and Democratic leaders said preserved the possibility of a compromise, though no agreement has yet been reached.
Spending for a number of federal agencies, impacting hundreds of thousands of federal employees, expires at midnight. But negotiations remained extremely fluid, and it was unclear if any spending measure would be able to resolve intense disagreements about whether to fund 215 miles of wall along the Mexico border.
“I hope Senate Democrats will work with the White House on an agreement that can pass both houses of Congress and then receive the president’s signature,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told other lawmakers after the vote passed 48-47, with Vice-President Mike Pence breaking a tie.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats were open to discussions with the White House and Republicans, but would not agree to any measure that funded the new construction of a border wall.
The talks could prove to be the final legislative effort before funding lapses at midnight. Other federal agencies would not be impacted, including the Pentagon, because their budgets were approved earlier in the year. But a number of other agencies, including those that oversee homeland security, law enforcement, tax collection, and transportation, would have to halt certain operations.
Trump and Schumer had dug in after the president reversed course Thursday morning and renewed his demand for taxpayer money to build the wall. But there were signs of a late thaw on Friday, when McConnell, Democrats, and Vice President Mike Pence began huddling separately in the Capitol.
Pence separately joined Trump adviser Jared Kushner and White House budget Director Mick Mulvaney for a meeting with House conservatives.
The construction of a wall along the Mexico border was one of Trump’s top campaign promises in 2016, and he had promised that Mexico would finance the entire project. But since taking office, he has demanded the money come from Congress, and Senate Democrats have easily blocked every attempt.
In recent days, Trump has tried a number of different tactics to try and secure the money. He called on cabinet secretaries to search their budgets for extra money, and on Wednesday he pronounced the entire project would be funded by the military. But by Thursday he was back to demanding that the money come from U.S. taxpayers, leaving many GOP lawmakers scrambling to accede to his demands.
Trump sees the final days of 2018 as his last, best chance to secure the funding, because Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in 2018.
Last week, he told lawmakers he would be “proud” to shut down the government over the issue, and he urged McConnell to change longstanding Senate rules on Friday so that a House-passed measure to keep the government open through February 8 while providing $5.7 billion for the wall could pass even without support from Democrats.
“We’re going to be working very hard to get something passed in the Senate,” Trump said earlier Friday in the Oval Office. “Now it’s up to the Democrats as to whether or not we have a shutdown tonight. I hope we don’t but we’ve very much prepared for a long shutdown.”
The frantic negotiations followed a near-miss earlier this week when lawmakers thought they had a deal to avert a shutdown.
On Wednesday night, the Senate unanimously passed a short-term spending bill to keep the government running through February 8 while denying Trump his wall money.
Lawmakers had expected Trump to sign that measure – especially after he asserted he could find other ways to fund his wall. But the president abruptly changed his mind in the face of a vicious backlash from conservative lawmakers and commentators.
Trump had met with advisers in the Oval Office Wednesday evening, where he told them that his base would revolt in he gave up the fight for a wall, and that as long as he pursued it, the shutdown would not hurt him politically.
At a meeting with GOP Senators Friday morning, Trump again demanded wall money and unsuccessfully pushed the Senate to change its rules to get it, but he provided few specifics on what he would sign, according to two people present who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
The meeting frustrated some in the Senate, as the president’s repeated demands for the wall did not include any way out of a shutdown, these people said.
Lawmakers of both parties acknowledge Democrats have the votes to follow through on their vow to block the $5.7 billion in border funding from passing the Senate.
“This is tyranny of talk radio hosts, right? And so, how do you deal with that?” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “You have two talk radio hosts who completely flipped the president. And so, do we succumb to tyranny of talk radio hosts?”
Still, after meeting with Trump at the White House, McConnell called a vote aimed at advancing the $5.7 billion border wall bill, saying the legislation would not be considered controversial in more normal times.
“I’m proud to vote for it,” McConnell said.
There were signs of an effort for a last-minute deal Friday afternoon. Vice President Pence and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, met with Schumer on Capitol Hill.
After the meeting, Schumer signaled they had made little progress, with a spokesman saying the minority leader made clear “that any proposal with funding for the wall will not pass the Senate.”
One reason for the White House desperation was that it appeared a Senate bill containing the wall funding wouldn’t even advance past an initial procedural hurdle – and even if it did so, the 60 votes needed for final passage were out of reach.
Nonetheless, the procedural vote took on the air of a cliff-hanger Friday as senators of both parties waited and watched to see if it could obtain the majority vote needed to advance in a Senate split 51-49 between Republicans and Democrats. Failure of the procedural motion would kill the legislation on the spot — and if that happened it would be because of defections from lawmakers of the president’s own party.
The vote had to be held open for hours as senators hurried back to the Capitol from their home states and other locations they had traveled after Wednesday night’s vote, on the belief that their work was done for the year.
As the hours ticked by, intense negotiations ensued. Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., voted “no,” the first Republican to do so. Democrats were pressuring Corker to do the same, and all eyes were on him because, under the math of the Senate, a “no” vote from Corker would likely kill Trump’s border bill.
First, Corker huddled with Schumer and other Democrats on the Senate floor. Then he said “let me go listen to the other side,” and headed out of the chamber to talk with Republicans.
Tension hung over the Capitol, four days before Christmas, with a partial government shutdown hours away, and Republicans in their last gasp of full control over Washington. As the GOP prepared to relinquish its majority in the House, the party was deeply divided, and partisan rifts with Democrats were growing ever more bitter.
In a spate of morning tweets, Trump sought to pin blame on Democrats for a potential shutdown even though he said last week that he would proudly own one if lawmakers did not provide at least $5 billion toward his marquee campaign promise.
“The Democrats, whose votes we need in the Senate, will probably vote against Border Security and the Wall even though they know it is DESPERATELY NEEDED,” Trump wrote. “If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!”
After Trump threatened Thursday to veto the Senate measure that did not contain the border funding he sought, the House hurried to appease the president, pulling together the bill that would keep the government funded through February 8 while also allocating $5.7 billion for the border wall and nearly $8 billion for disaster relief for hurricanes and wildfires.
But Democrats showed no signs of relenting.
During a floor speech Friday, Schumer noted that the Senate had unanimously agreed to a spending bill earlier in the week and accused Trump of having a “temper tantrum.”
“President Trump, you will not get your wall,” Schumer said. “You’re not getting your wall today, next week or on Jan. 3 when Democrats take control of the House.”
In a contentious Oval Office meeting last week with Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Trump said he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
“So I will take the mantle,” he said. “I will be the one to shut it down. I won’t blame you for it.”
“The Democrats now own the shutdown!” Trump insisted in one of his Friday morning tweets.
In other tweets Friday, Trump urged McConnell to “fight for the Wall and Border Security as hard as he fought for anything.”
Trump also urged McConnell to “use the Nuclear Option and get it done!”
That was a reference to a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. Trump was advocating that McConnell change the rule so that only 51 votes are required. By doing that, Republicans would be able to pass a bill without Democratic cooperation in a chamber in which Republicans hold 51 seats.
But a McConnell spokesman soon put out a statement making clear that wouldn’t happen.
“The Leader has said for years that the votes are not there in the Conference to use the nuclear option,” said McConnell spokesman David Popp. “Just this morning, several Senators put out statements confirming that there is not a majority in the conference to go down that road.”
For more than a year, Trump has tried to pressure McConnell to change Senate rules in a way that would allow the chamber to pass legislation with a simple majority.
During the Obama administration, when Democrats controlled the Senate, Democrats changed the rules to allow most presidential nominees to advance with a simple majority of votes. During the beginning of the Trump administration, McConnell extended this practice to the nomination of Supreme Court justices, which proved crucial because both of Trump’s nominees to the nation’s highest court won approval by a narrow margin.
But McConnell has resisted such a change for legislation, as have a number of other Republicans, worried about the precedent it would set.
In his tweets, Trump also sought to counter Democratic arguments that a border wall is an antiquated strategy for curbing illegal border crossings.
“The Democrats are trying to belittle the concept of a Wall, calling it old fashioned,” Trump wrote. “The fact is there is nothing else’s that will work, and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better.”
“Properly designed and built Walls work, and the Democrats are lying when they say they don’t,” the president added.
Trump’s Twitter attacks came as a number of federal agencies were in the final stages of implementing their shutdown plans.
A number of federal parks and monuments are slated to close, some as soon as Saturday morning. The Securities and Exchange Commission posted a list of the services it will soon suspend, including the processing of certain business records. The Justice Department, Commerce Department and Internal Revenue Service are preparing to send thousands of people home without pay.
And Trump’s prediction that a shutdown would last “for a very long time” means that more than 100,000 federal employees risk missing at least one paycheck, and possibly more. Even the Border Patrol agents and Transportation Security Agency officials who are directed to continue working during the shutdown will not be paid until Congress funds their agencies.
About 480,000 federal workers would be furloughed, according to a Washington Post projection, even though some 75 per cent of the federal government including the Pentagon have been funded through September and would remain open.
There were signs that some federal agencies were still making last-minute changes to their shutdown plans, adding to the confusion among federal workers.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sent an email to employees on Friday morning declaring that the agency was still “working to update our contingency plans for executing an orderly shutdown of activities.”