Fool me once, Mr. President.
Back in the spring, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, talked as if the administration would welcome a government shutdown, and Donald Trump tweeted about it. I concluded that the chances of the government closing its doors had gone way up, because, after all, extended shutdowns have only happened when one side wants them to happen. I still didn’t think it was likely, but I did think it was a possibility.
Well, it didn’t happen then, when Congress and the president had to fund the rest of fiscal-year 2017. And it didn’t happen in September, the original deadline for funding fiscal-year 2018 — they kicked the can down the road. And now we’re a week away from the Dec. 8 deadline, and the president is once again musing about how he could be helped politically if there’s an impasse. I did tweet out a reminder that shutdowns require someone who wants it to happen, but on reflection? I’m not biting this time. At least, mostly not.
Why not? Because I very much doubt that most House and Senate Republicans want a shutdown, and I don’t think congressional Democrats do, either. So they’ll probably reach a deal, although it may take more than one more short-term continuing resolution, stretching into January or February or even March, to get it done. If they do, Trump will probably sign whatever they come up with, whether it contains his priorities or not.
That still leaves a long way to go. The basic situation is simple. If Republicans could muster 218 votes in the House (where they have currently have 240 members) and at least 50 of their 52 senators plus the vice president for a funding bill, then Democrats would have minimal leverage. The minority party could still filibuster in the Senate, requiring Republicans to reach 60 votes. But while technically Democrats could stop any regular bill that way and force Republicans to make concessions, in reality it would be politically very difficult to force and maintain a shutdown supported by only a minority in the Senate. Even if the cause was popular (such as more money for favorite government programs or restoring the protections under DACA), and even with a very unpopular president, most neutral observers would blame an obstructing minority for the train wreck.
But it appears that Republicans don’t have 218 votes in the House thanks to defections from the House Freedom Caucus and others, and they may not have 50 in the Senate. That flips things entirely. If Republicans need Democratic votes just to achieve a simple majority, then Democrats have plenty of leverage indeed. Republicans can’t reasonably expect Democrats to vote for a Republican bill, after all; they need to get to 218 and 50 by compromising.
The limit of the Democrats’ leverage is basically defined by whatever it would take for Republican dissidents to back the Republican bill after all rather than allowing a bipartisan bill to pass, and that runs up against some Republicans who just refuse to vote for spending bills at all. So Democrats can ask for quite a lot, and if Republicans refuse and allow the government to shut down, most neutral observers would blame the party that holds the presidency and controls the House and Senate.
A more complicated question is which party would eventually object to short-term spending bills to keep the government running while negotiations go nowhere. On the one hand, a “clean” continuing resolution keeping everything funded at the same levels prevents the majority party from getting anything done. On the other hand, Democrats want a resolution on the “Dreamers” before Trump cuts off the program in March, although a short-term fix for that or any other demand with a deadline is at least a possibility. So many cans to kick down so many roads!
As of now, Republicans are already preparing the first of these short-term funding bills (or second, if you count the longer one passed in September), extending the shutdown deadline to Dec. 22. I have no idea whether they can reach a deal in the next two weeks, but if they don’t, I’d be shocked if they don’t just push the deadline to some point in January.
But neither side has any real incentive to shut down the government, because neither side would expect to get a better final deal with the government closed than with the government open.
As for the guy at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue muttering about how much he’d love a big confrontation? If anything, his comments serve to undermine the Republican position, because one of the easiest ways for the “neutral” media to assign blame is to spot the politician who said he wanted a shutdown. Which, perversely, increases everyone’s certainty about what would happen if the government did shut down — which makes miscalculation even less likely.
Meanwhile, members of Congress from both parties will treat Trump as if he’ll sign whatever they send him, and they’ll probably be right.