by Rachel Bovard
The partial government shutdown is well into its second week. And given the mix of Democrat enthusiasm and complete Republican apathy, it looks like it may stay that way for a while.
Ask any reporter or Capitol Hill staffer who has worked through previous government shutdowns, and we’ll all tell you the same thing about this one: it’s bizarre.
Government shutdowns are generally characterized by a pervasive sense of urgency and frazzled, frantic negotiations. Beleaguered members tramp back and forth to the White House and hold daily press conferences, both chambers hold late-night sessions for votes and speeches, and, of course, everyone howls on cable news. But, minus a few exceptions on the cable news networks, hardly any of this has occurred.
Instead, the clock chimed on the shutdown and Congress just went home. The Republican House, in a last-minute Hail Mary, passed a government funding bill that included the president’s requested $5 billion in wall funding. But upon receiving it, the Republican Senate collectively yawned and packed up for home on December 21. They didn’t come back until 4 p.m. on January 2.
They weren’t alone. Newly minted Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decamped for Hawaii, for which she received approximately zero criticism in the press. The new junior senator from Utah, Mitt Romney, apparently spent the break crafting a sanctimonious missive against the administration he previously sought to join. And nary a peep was heard from anyone else in congressional leadership, Republican or Democrat.
President Trump, meanwhile, remained in Washington, practically begging for a negotiating partner. Or, at the very least, a sparring partner.
What he got instead was an empty Capitol and a new House Democratic majority passing a funding bill that spends $12 billion on walls in foreign countries, and zero on any walls (or border security) in our own. Naturally, it also funds abortions overseas. Because, priorities. President Trump has, rightly, threatened a veto.
The apathy—particularly among Senate Republicans—is partially understandable. As opposed to previous shutdowns, this current one is a partial one. It impacts only 30 percent of the government.
And unlike the Obama-era shutdowns, which featured veterans blocked from public memorials, the Trump Administration has, to the extent possible, kept most things open.
The dramatic tales of woe during this shutdown largely have been limited to overflowing garbage cans in federal parks, a shuttered Panda Cam at the National Zoo, and, bizarrely, the District of Columbia’s refusalto process marriage licenses (divorces, however, are proceeding on schedule). The approximately 800,000 furloughed federal workers have yet to miss a paycheck, and any that they do miss likely will be back-filled by Congress.
But the apathy is also galling. With the House now in the Democrats’ hands, the onus for pushing through the president’s biggest priority—the wall—now lies with Senate Republicans. But, as everyone from Politicoto the New York Times has pointed out, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken a back seat, telling reporters that any outcome “will be determined by the president and Senate Democrats.”
With Friends Like These . . .
My disagreement with McConnell isn’t tactical; it’s strategic. Ultimately, it’s about the politics of effort—his effort.
While McConnell and his team may bemoan their lack of the 60 votes needed to overcome Democrat opposition, the truth is, neither he nor his team has ever even tried. Because the wall, or anything else related to Trump’s immigration agenda, isn’t a McConnell priority.
This is obvious when you look at things that are among his priorities; that is, what happens when the congressional GOP and the White House align. On tax reform, McConnell clearly communicated his priorities, he worked closely with his House colleagues, he engaged K Street, Wall Street, Main Street, and the White House. He worked his Senate colleagues, horse-traded for votes, and made sure all of them were prepared to vote favorably.
Senate Republican leadership worked the tax bill for a solid year before getting it passed, using a reconciliation vehicle that only required 51 votes in the Senate (the same vehicle they could have used for the wall this year, but left untouched; effectively, a silver bullet left chambered).
In short, Republicans united with the president around tax reform, a priority they all wanted, which faced stiff opposition from Democrats, and for which they did not possess 60 votes in the Senate. They made the earth shake in pursuit of it. And they won.
Betraying the Base, Surrendering to the Dems (Again)
The same effort could be applied to the wall. But McConnell has instead chosen to ignore it. The Senate is moving forward next week with a bill on U.S. security in the Middle East. There is no push to craft a new government funding bill, no GOP conference meetings to push the president’s signature priority, no working groups, no horse-trading, no coalition meetings. In short, no work.
McConnell’s obvious distaste for the wall (and for Trump) gives his members tacit permission to act likewise. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) are already pushing for passage of the House Democrat bill, and publicly chastising their own party for failing, essentially, to concede to all Democrat demands.
McConnell and his GOP colleagues absolutely have it in their power to marshal the resources—both inside and outside of the Senate—necessary to fund the wall, to end this shutdown, and support their own president. But it takes work, the same kind of negotiating, glad-handing, drafting, re-drafting, and whipping applied to all the priorities McConnell crowed about before last year’s midterms.
That’s the kind of effort which created McConnell’s reputation as a “wily tactician.” But, in truth, he’s only a tactician for things he (and, apparently, K Street) care about. The difference here is not that he doesn’t have the votes. When it comes to the wall, he just doesn’t care.
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Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.
Photo “Mitch McConnell” by Gage Skidmore CC2.0 and “Chuck Schumer” by Senate Democrats.