Don’t look now but the US government is, again, nearing the brink of a shutdown. And that prospect got more likely on Monday night.
That’s because Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California) said that she – and her Democratic House majority – would not go along with a short-term raising of the debt ceiling if no broader budget agreement can be worked out. Pelosi said that idea, which had been floated by the White House as a plan B in the event talks between the speaker and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin didn’t work out, was not “acceptable to our caucus.”
Here’s why that could lead to a(nother) government shutdown: The House is scheduled to go on its annual, month-long August recess on July 26 and Mnuchin has warned that the government could run out of money to pay its bills by early September if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. If no long-term budget deal can be made then – and Pelosi sticks to her guns that Democrats will not pass a short-term increase of the debt ceiling – it could well be shutdown city. Again.
You’ll remember that history was made in late 2018 and early 2019 when the government was shuttered for 35 days amid – and stop me if you heard this one! – an inability of the White House and congressional Democrats to come to agreement on legislation to fund the government’s activities. Polling conducted both during and after the shutdown suggested that Americans saw the blame for the shutdown largely resting with President Donald Trump due to his demands for funding for his border wall to be included in the spending package. (Trump eventually declared a national emergency at the border, allowing him to end-run the appropriations process and take money from other pots around the government to begin wall construction).
Scarred by that experience, congressional Republicans – led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) – are professing public optimism about the chances of a deal being reached.
“We should not leave for August without dealing with that,” McCarthy said Tuesday of the need to raise the debt ceiling. “We are very close to making that happen.”
There’s no question that a government shutdown is the sort of event that a) draws national attention from even people who pay only passing attention to politics b) affirms the general sentiment in the country that Washington is hopelessly broken and c) can produce unpredictable political reverberations. That trio of results is the sort of thing politicians hate – especially the uncertainty of who gets blamed for a shutdown and how (or whether) it changes the broader political dynamic heading into 2020.
So there will be a clear effort – on all sides – to get something done before the House is set to leave Washington at the end of next week.
But context matters here. It’s hard to imagine congressional Democrats and the White House being further apart than they are right now – as Trump continues to dig in on his racist tweets directed at Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan). That move – and his subsequent doubling, tripling and quadrupling down it – has further inflamed an already explosive relationship between the two branches of government.
Pelosi also carries with her the knowledge that the last government shutdown was blamed, by a majority of Americans, on Trump. And that the President’s job approval numbers remain in the low 40s in national polling. And that her base will punish her not at all for refusing to play ball – or, in the base’s mind, capitulate – to the demands of this White House.
For Trump’s part, he has increasingly shown a willingness to take his ball and go home, legislatively speaking. There’s no better example of that than the decision to declare a national emergency to get money for his wall that Congress wouldn’t give him. We also know from his first few years in office, of course, that Trump is hugely unpredictable and could change his views on a government shutdown 15 times between now and next Friday.
Let’s be clear: The betting odds still favor Pelosi and Mnuchin reaching some sort of deal that avoids another government shutdown. But the chances of a shutdown went from 1 in a 100 to 1 in a lot less than that on Monday night.