WASHINGTON (Circa) — President Donald Trump’s latest threats to shut down the government when current funding expires at the end of September do not appear to be stirring up much concern on Capitol Hill, but Trump may have more to gain from a high-stakes showdown over illegal immigration weeks before the midterm elections than from allowing the cooler heads in the Republican Party to prevail.
“Because Trump is unpredictable, I think people should take the threat seriously. Government in Washington doesn’t do a darn thing…unless it’s got a gun to its head,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
...Border Security is National Security, and National Security is the long-term viability of our Country. A Government Shutdown is a very small price to pay for a safe and Prosperous America!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2018
“I don’t care what the political ramifications are, our immigration laws and border security have been a complete and total disaster for decades, and there is no way that the Democrats will allow it to be fixed without a Government Shutdown,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
This is far from the first time the president has threatened to shutter the government over border security funding, but ever since he begrudgingly signed off on a bipartisan spending deal earlier this year, he has been adamant that he will not do so again in September if he does not get what he wants.
That is the message he has sent publicly, at least. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump has privately agreed to postpone the border wall standoff until after the midterms at the request of Republican congressional leadership.
“The president sees merit in having this battle after the election,” one administration official told the Journal.
Top Republicans seemed to shrug off Trump’s threat even as the president reinforced it at a press conference Monday. Lawmakers said they plan to proceed with advancing appropriations bills that would fall far short of the full wall funding he has demanded.
“We’ll finish up the set of appropriations measures we’ve been considering for several days and take four more big steps towards our goal of completing a regular appropriations process and funding the government in a timely and orderly manner,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor.
“I know he’s frustrated and I am too that we haven’t taken steps to adequately deal with border security. But we’ve got an orderly appropriations process going through here and I’m hopeful we can get most if not all the appropriations done,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico.
While some in the GOP fear another divisive immigration debate will drown out a positive economic message, others in the more conservative wing of the party are backing the president’s play and arguing it could pay off politically.
“Do we want to nationalize these elections and fire up Republican and Trump voters to come out and vote for us?” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who recently announced his candidacy for speaker of the house, in an interview with the Conservative Review. “Then we better just not kick the can past the elections. We better actually do the things we said we were going to do.”
Given the blowback Republicans have faced over shutdowns in the past, O’Connell recognized why some in leadership are resistant, but he is skeptical the party would take the kind of hit others predict over it if it helps motivate the president’s base to vote.
“There is no issue that drives Republican turnout more than immigration,” he said.
The Democratic base has been electrified since Trump took office, and the GOP needs to match that intensity. A 4.1 percent unemployment rate and 4.1 percent economic growth might be enough for the party in power to retain control of Congress in normal times, but these are not normal times.
“It’s going to come down to which party can better turn out its base,” O’Connell said.
Democrats have welcomed Trump pre-emptively taking responsibility for a shutdown even as some agree it is unlikely to happen.
It you combine the promise to shut down the government with the child separation policy and eliminating protections for pre-existing conditions, this really puts the Democrats in a bind (is what the pundits will say but you should ignore them and just organize for November.)— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) July 29, 2018
“Are we gonna spend September trying to figure out which party is shutting the government down even though they run all branches of government, or are we going to remember that the President literally announced that he wants to do it?” asked Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, on Twitter.
Democratic strategist Craig Varoga dismissed the president’s rhetoric as an attempt to change the subject from a fairly steady stream of negative headlines.
“Trump is just trying to distract attention from the many ongoing investigations, everyone else be damned, including the Republicans in Congress who have failed to exercise their constitutional duty of checks and balances,” he said. “The only certainty is that his tweets, threats and tantrums will get more frequent as we all get closer to Election Day.”
It is not clear how hard Republicans who oppose a shutdown will push back against the president or how far Trump is truly willing to go to secure wall funding, but unless Congress can muster up the votes to overcome a presidential veto, the ball will firmly be in Trump’s hands when current funding runs out on Sept. 30. If he wants a shutdown, he almost certainly can have one, and O’Connell noted he will have little to lose at that point if Democrats’ chances of retaking the House improve.
“If the GOP loses the House, it’s not like you’re going to get a wall for at least two years and they’ll be looking to loosen immigration laws,” he said.
I would be willing to “shut down” government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2018
That said, Republicans may work to achieve smaller, less controversial immigration reforms before the election, and reports indicate that could be enough to pacify Trump until he can wage a bigger battle over the wall this winter.
“There’s a lot of things he could take away as a victory short of the wall,” O’Connell said.