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Shutdown Crisis Looms for GOP

Republicans control the budget levers, but they may not be able to agree among themselves.

If you could be a fly on the wall eaves­drop­ping on a meet­ing these days, only one would be more in­ter­est­ing than the brain­storm­ing ses­sions that Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and House Speak­er Paul Ry­an are hav­ing with their re­spect­ive lead­er­ship teams. It would be the meet­ing at which White House Chief of Staff Re­ince Priebus and his le­gis­lat­ive-af­fairs team ex­plain to Pres­id­ent Trump the mech­an­ics and con­sequences of a loom­ing April 29 gov­ern­ment shut­down, which would co­in­cid­ent­ally fall on Trump’s 100th day in of­fice. The timeline is tight: Con­gress leaves this Fri­day for the East­er-Pas­sov­er re­cess, the Sen­ate re­turns on April 24, the House re­turns on April 25, and the cur­rent con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion ex­pires at mid­night on April 28.

A shut­down would af­fect vir­tu­ally the en­tire fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Last year, only one of the 12 ap­pro­pri­ations bills, for vet­er­ans and mil­it­ary con­struc­tion, was fun­ded bey­ond April 28. In re­cent years, Con­gress has be­come heav­ily de­pend­ent on passing om­ni­bus ap­pro­pri­ations bills, with vir­tu­ally everything tossed in­to the mix.

Threats of a pos­sible gov­ern­ment shut­down oc­cur from time to time. The last one oc­curred from Sept. 30 to Oct. 17, 2013, dur­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s second term. There were none dur­ing Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s ten­ure. Pres­id­ent Clin­ton had two—Nov. 13-19, 1995, and again from Dec. 15, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996. The single shut­down dur­ing George H.W. Bush’s pres­id­ency oc­curred on Oct. 5-9, 1990. There were a whop­ping eight shut­downs dur­ing the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion. Of course, a gov­ern­ment shut­down is not en­tirely or ne­ces­sar­ily the pres­id­ent’s fault; it’s usu­ally the res­ult of at least one cham­ber of Con­gress be­ing in the hands of a party dif­fer­ent from the pres­id­ent’s.

What would set this one apart is that Re­pub­lic­ans hold the White House as well as ma­jor­it­ies in the House and Sen­ate. It would be the first same-party shut­down in 37 years. The last oc­curred when Pres­id­ent Carter had five sep­ar­ate peri­ods in which one spend­ing bill ex­pired be­fore an­oth­er one was ad­op­ted, all with Demo­crat­ic Con­gresses in place, though in those days only par­tial shut­downs took place. The main hang-up then was abor­tion.

So why is a shut­down very pos­sible with Re­pub­lic­ans in charge of all three levers in the budget pro­cess? Maybe it’s be­cause they are not all mem­bers of the same Re­pub­lic­an Party. One Re­pub­lic­an Party would be adam­antly op­posed to fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood. An­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an Party is dom­in­ated by the Free­dom Caucus, whose mem­bers are boil­ing over the pot­shots they took from Trump after “re­peal and re­place” failed in the House. A mish­mash of Re­pub­lic­ans are am­bi­val­ent about a pro­pos­al to hike de­fense spend­ing by 10 per­cent. None of these Re­pub­lic­an fac­tions can ex­pect help from Demo­crats, who op­pose the big hike in mil­it­ary out­lays, ri­dicule fund­ing for a bor­der wall, and—un­der the Sen­ate dome—re­main liv­id over Obama Su­preme Court nom­in­ee Mer­rick Gar­land’s treat­ment by Re­pub­lic­ans and hanker for pay­back against Trump’s pick, Neil Gor­such.

This situ­ation has the po­ten­tial to be a ma­jor dis­aster for Trump and Re­pub­lic­ans. They face the pos­sib­il­ity of gov­ern­ment grind­ing to a halt, with massive fur­loughs of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees that res­ult in de­ferred payrolls. With an eco­nomy that is still pretty fra­gile and a House ma­jor­ity that is aw­fully thin, it doesn’t take much of an ima­gin­a­tion to see how this be­comes a polit­ic­al night­mare.

Some White House op­er­at­ives na­ively think they could blame a gov­ern­ment shut­down on Demo­crats. They would prob­ably buy beach­front prop­erty in West Vir­gin­ia, too. Com­ing on the heels of Re­pub­lic­ans be­ing un­able to get their act to­geth­er on a health care bill, the odds of them be­ing able to pin the tail on the Demo­crat­ic don­key, while Re­pub­lic­ans are in charge of the budget ma­chinery, seem highly re­mote. And it’s hard to ima­gine the hos­tile me­dia do­ing a back­flip and help­ing Trump sell this fic­tion.

It isn’t clear that Trump fully un­der­stands what is go­ing on, and what it means for a pres­id­ent with job-ap­prov­al rat­ings be­low 40 per­cent and dis­ap­provals in the high 50s even be­fore the budget prob­lem comes in­to view. If some voters didn’t think he was in over his head be­fore, a lot more would come to that con­clu­sion if the gov­ern­ment shuts down. For that mat­ter, the two-thirds of Re­pub­lic­an House mem­bers and 60 per­cent of GOP sen­at­ors who have nev­er served with a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent have no ex­per­i­ence with the real-word com­prom­ises need to push through a budget.

A gov­ern­ment shut­down would not be seen by most voters as a policy dis­pute. It would be per­ceived as a mat­ter of com­pet­ence—noth­ing more, noth­ing less. The au­thor of The Art of the Deal is go­ing to be tested on wheth­er he can strike a big bar­gain in­side the Belt­way.

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)