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'A pretty high stakes game of chicken': Trump pushes wall funding as shutdown looms

President Donald Trump speaks at a spending bill signing ceremony at VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump has often made clear he is displeased with congressional Republicans for not securing full funding for the southern border wall he has long vowed to build, but as another government funding deadline approaches, the question of how far he is willing to go to get it has again arisen.

The president has not explicitly threatened to shut down the government recently, but several comments and tweets in the last week hint that the possibility is on his mind.

“I want to know, where is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this ridiculous Spending Bill, and where will it come from after the Midterms?” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Dems are obstructing Law Enforcement and Border Security. REPUBLICANS MUST FINALLY GET TOUGH!”

With less than a week left in the fiscal year and a bill already passed by the Senate that funds the Department of Homeland Security without additional border wall funding until after the midterm elections, experts say the only thing Trump could do about it right now is provoke a shutdown.

“If it’s not a shutdown threat, it has a pretty good disguise as one,” said Tom Whalen, a presidential historian and author of “A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage.”

Still, at a rally in Las Vegas Thursday night, the president seemed resigned to waiting until December.

“I am not thrilled, but after the election, they are all telling me we are getting our wall the way we want it, so let’s see what happens,” he told a cheering crowd.

Trump acknowledged Democrats have agreed to $1.6 billion in funding for 2019, which was the original White House request, but he has been pushing for at least $5 billion.

“We are going to get the wall, but it would be a lot easier if you Republicans in there to vote,” Trump said Thursday.

It is unclear if the president’s recent words amount to a demand for action, a serious threat, or just an effort to rile up his nationalist base to match the enthusiasm on the left.

“This, to me, is a shout out to his base…,” said Tom Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “Everyone’s talking blue wave and he’s trying to do what he can to shore up his party’s defenses and he thinks immigration is the way to go.”

The president’s complaints come in the midst of an unusually productive month for congressional appropriators. Bundling together funding for several departments in “minibus” bills, Congress aims to enact the most spending bills before the start of the fiscal year since the mid-1990s. Assuming Trump signs them all, that is.

President Trump signed the first minibus bill—including funds for Energy and Water, the legislative branch, military construction and the Veterans Affairs Department—in Las Vegas Friday at an event highlighting his support for veterans.

“With this legislation, we are securing a better future for our citizens,” Trump said. “We are modernizing our nation’s infrastructure. And we are building military bases worthy of our great heroes. We are ensuring that our brave veterans are respected and cherished like never before.”

A second minibus bill, containing appropriations for the Departments of Defense, Labor and Health and Human Services, was passed by the Senate this week. It will be considered by the House when members return next week.

The second bill also contains a continuing resolution to fund remaining federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, at current levels through early December. The minibus bill received broad bipartisan support in the Senate, but several Republicans have loudly objected to punting the issue until after the election.

“This is a total sleight of hand. It is caving to Senate Democrats who are doing everything they can to derail President Trump’s agenda, including funding for border security and the wall,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in a Washington Examiner op-ed Wednesday. The following day, Trump tweeted a similar quote from Perdue in a Fox News appearance.

Despite his frustration, Trump has reportedly assured House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the past that he is on board with delaying a wall fight until after the midterms. Many Republicans seem confident that is still the case.

“There won’t be a shutdown,” House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, bluntly told Roll Call, brushing aside the president’s tweets.

As Trump wavers publicly, his allies seem to be weighing the implications of forcing a shutdown. Some suggested to Politico doing so would benefit the president politically, showing conservative voters that Trump is doing what they sent him to Washington to do. With the prospect of Democratic control on the horizon, they fear the president may never again hold the leverage he does now.

According to Politico, the allies also claimed the damage would be minimal because appropriations for several departments has already passed, and the funding the president wants to contest would largely come from the Department of Homeland Security’s budget.

However, limiting a shutdown to DHS would be difficult because the continuing resolution that would fund the department is tied to Defense appropriations in the Senate minibus package. Unless he could pressure enough House Republicans to stop it from reaching his desk, Trump would also need to veto the increased DOD spending he often brags about to take a stand on the wall.

“Any agency that didn’t have either annual appropriations passed or funding that came from a non-appropriated source would shut down,” said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute.

The impact of such a move is hard to gauge. Large percentages of both departments would still have to show up for work because they are in the military or are considered vital to the safety of the nation. Employees would not be getting paid, though, and civilian support services would be limited.

Politically, many Republicans fear a shutdown six weeks before Election Day could be fatal to their already wavering hopes to retain control of Congress.

“I do not believe there’s going to be another shutdown,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Sinclair earlier this month. “I hope not. I think it’s not good for anybody, Democrats, Republicans, Congress, the president, and certainly not the American people.”

Shelby supports funding the wall, but he believes the amount can be negotiated between the House and Senate later. The president seems unconvinced that is the wisest course. Last weekend, Trump tweeted that Republicans “are being played like a fiddle by the Democrats on Border Security and Building the Wall.”

Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary who now teaches at Louisiana State University, sees little for Republicans to gain from a protracted battle over the wall with several departments of the government in limbo, but the president may hope the threat is enough to shake some votes loose for a more generous border funding package.

“I’ve got to think he’s pushing them to do this and thinks threatening a shutdown is the most terrifying thing in the world to these Republicans in the House and Senate and they’ll cave…,” Mann said. “It’s a pretty high stakes game of chicken he’s playing here.”

Whalen agreed a shutdown would likely be detrimental to the Republican Party, but he stressed what is bad for Republicans is not necessarily bad for Donald Trump.

“He’s looking out for his own political interests, not necessarily the party,” he said. “They’ve always been two different things… This is about his political survival.”

The border wall has always been far more popular with Trump’s base than with the general public. Most polls put overall support for the policy in the low to mid-40s, though one CBS News poll in June found 51 percent of Americans think the wall is at least “a good idea that should be tried, even if it can’t be completed.”

Among Republicans, enthusiasm for the wall has generally mirrored Trump’s approval rating, with more than 70 percent of GOP voters supporting the idea in several recent polls.

The base may love it, but congressional Republicans have never been entirely sold on the president’s signature campaign promise. Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent Trump critic, told The Washington Post the president campaigned on Mexico paying for the wall, so footing the bill falls low on lawmakers’ list of priorities.

“For him to come to Congress and say, ‘Pony up,’ Congress says no,” Flake said. “We never agreed to this.”

Whatever the political cost of a shutdown may be, the cost to Trump of failing to deliver some sort of wall could be higher.

“In a sense, he’s kind of in a bind here because he’s promised this thing, he made it a major pillar of his campaign, and he looks really weak if he can’t get it done,” Mann said.

While a Democratic majority in one or both chambers would alter the calculus of a border wall showdown, it would not necessarily put the issue to rest for two years. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have signaled before that they could live with it if they got something in return.

Earlier this year, Democrats offered Trump $25 billion in border security funding in exchange for a path to legal status for so-called Dreamers. Media reports conflict on why that deal fell apart, but both issues remain unresolved.

“If Trump really wants the wall that much, maybe this is the time for Democrats to put that deal on the table and say, ‘Here you go,’” Mann said.

However, a new Democratic caucus riding into office on a surge of anti-Trump sentiment, eyeing a smorgasbord of corruption investigations, and possibly drafting articles of impeachment may be less interested in bargaining with this White House than the toothless Democratic minority was last spring.

“The problem is the whole issue has gone to the extremes…,” Whalen said. “I doubt they’re going to be willing to compromise with the president.”

Democrats watching President Trump take aim at GOP lawmakers clinging to power in Congress are certainly in no hurry to help right now.

“Trump’s promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it was dead on arrival. He’s known that for three years and now he doesn’t have an exit plan other than to blame other people, including his own party,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.

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