With Mexico out of the running, President Donald Trump is pressing Congress – and so, American taxpayers – to foot the bill for his southern border wall.
One problem: Most Republicans on Capitol Hill know that passing a budget with anything close to the estimated $10 to $15 (or more) billion in funds for its construction is a non-starter.
Trump must know this, too, but he is also aware that his base is in thrall to “the wall,” so on Tuesday night in Phoenix he upped the stakes.
“Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said. “Let me be very clear to Democrats in Congress who oppose a border wall and stand in the way of border security: You are putting all of America’s safety at risk. You’re doing that.”
But the political reality is more complicated. “Obstructionist Democrats” are the minority party in both the House and Senate. So while they can in many cases hold up the Republican agenda, their powers are limited. More importantly here, there is little will among their GOP counterparts to halt the work of a government they control.
“The President is employing a strategy that he thinks is effective for him,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, ever diplomatic, said on Wednesday. His early August exhortations aside, Ryan has mostly preached caution on spending negotiations. He knows that a shutdown now – with Republicans running the White House, House and Senate – would be a terrible look.
It would also be a historic one.
Not since the Carter administration – which, fairly nor not, has become a shorthand for ineptitude in governing – has a federal government plunged into a “spending gap” during a period of one-party rule. There has never been a strict “shutdown” when the same party controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. So Trump is in uncharted territory with his threat.
When Carter was President, a shutdown was hardly that. Government agencies would typically work through it, limiting their outside impact. That changed when Carter’s attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, issued opinions in 1980 and 1981 requiring the government to halt most of its work if the Congress didn’t deliver the necessary funds.
In the dozen subsequent shutdowns, some brief and lost to history, others prolonged political game-changers, the president has been required to deal with at least one opposition majority in the Congress. Should he follow through on his threat, Trump and the GOP-led 115th Congress would be the first to manage it on their own.
The Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush-era shutdowns were mostly brief, never lasting more than a few days. The first of the two Clinton impasses, in November 1995, was patched up in less than a week. The second, though, beginning in December of that year, stretched on for three weeks, into January 1996. Not by coincidence, there wasn’t another for nearly two decades. The 1995-96 shutdown was damaging to Republicans, most notably then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who bore the brunt of the political fallout.
The most recent, in 2013, came as the result of a House Republican effort to delay and defund Obamacare. When the Senate, still then with a Democratic majority, refused to sign on, the budget bill sank and the government went dark for 16 days.