We already know how this partial shutdown of the federal government will end.
Someone has to blink, or the two sides have to compromise. But it’s rarely a compromise that ends a shutdown.
At the root of each of the recent government shutdowns – in the 1990s, 2013 and last year – was a disagreement over policy between lawmakers and the President in which one or both sides wouldn’t bend and was willing to hold government funds hostage.
In this case, it’s President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall, which Democrats don’t want to build or pay for. It’s pretty clear at this point that Mexico won’t be doing it. Remember, Trump couldn’t get funding for the wall when Republicans controlled the House, either – but last year he said he wouldn’t sign new spending bills without wall funding.
(Note: If Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi want their standoff over the border wall to equal the longest shutdown in history, they’ll have to wait until January 14 for someone to blink. Or January 21, if you pair the successive shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. That seems like a good bet at this moment.)
As she prepared to take the speaker’s gavel and give Democrats a foothold on the federal government, Pelosi told NBC there would be nothing for any wall.
“We can go through the back and forth,” Pelosi said. “No. How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall.”
During a televised soliloquy of a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Trump talked repeatedly about the need for a wall and said he was prepared to keep the shutdown going “as long as it takes” to get the $5.6 billion he wants for a border wall.
“We’re in a shutdown because Democrats refuse to fund the border security,” he said. “They try and make it like it’s just about the wall, and it is about the wall.”
So there will either be wall funding or there won’t, probably masked by some kind of face-saving sop, but until we know the answer to that question, the parts of the federal government that are closed are going to stay that way.
Here’s how those other notable recent shutdowns ended.
The Clinton and Gingrich shutdowns – November 1995 and December 1995 to January 1996
Bill Clinton, and then congressional Republicans
These two shutdowns combined for 28 days. They’re now viewed as largely helping to revive Clinton’s presidency even though he did agree, with stipulations, to Republican demands that the budget be balanced within seven years.
Clinton made that concession to end the first shutdown. Republicans blinked on their demands for how it should be implemented with the second.
On the day that longest American shutdown ended – January 6, 1996 – The New York Times used the language of retreat to refer to Republicans on its front page, comparing the party to Napoleon overreaching in his attempts to take Moscow.
“But by the end, the shutdown had boomeranged into a powerful force against Republicans, who were seen as wreaking havoc on Federal workers and innocent citizens to score political points,” Michael Wines wrote on the front page of the Times. “And Mr. Clinton’s stubborn refusal to cut a deal, seen all last year as evidence of political weakness, suddenly began to look like courage in the face of an enemy siege.”
The Obamacare shutdown – October 2013
Conservative Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina helped lead an insurrection among Republicans in the House, where they insisted on an effort to strip funding for the Affordable Care Act. But with President Barack Obama still in office and Democrats then in control of the Senate, the effort had no chance of success. There were other issues at play, but ultimately Republicans agreed to fund the government at existing levels with a slight tweak to income verification for health care subsidies.
Then-House Speaker John Boehner admitted in a radio interview that Republicans had given up in the fight.
“We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” he said at the time.
The DACA shutdown – January 2018
Democrats thought they had the moral high ground even if they lacked a majority in the House or the Senate. So Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer refused to pass a massive spending bill unless Trump and Republicans agreed to a permanent fix for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. They had been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program enacted by fiat under Obama, but ended by Trump. Democrats lost their nerve quickly, however, and agreed to a promise by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the Senate would consider a permanent DACA fix. Senators failed to fix DACA. And Trump’s decision to end DACA has been slowed down in the courts. Look for this issue to return this year.
The details of how and when the current shutdown will end are still to be determined as it completes its 13th day, but what ultimately will happen is one side will have to give.