Does Trump Want a Government Shutdown?

The president is making a late push to win funding for his border wall in a must-pass spending bill. But it’s not clear how badly he—or Republicans—want to fight.

Susan Walsh / AP

If President Trump wants to shut down the federal government over funding for his southern border wall, Democrats seem happy to oblige him.

Four days before a deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill, the big question is just how much Trump wants to have the fight his administration has begun to wage over the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been negotiating for weeks on legislation to avert a shutdown on April 29 and fund the government for the remaining five months of the fiscal year. Officials in both parties have characterized the talks positively: Neither side wants a shutdown, and they have largely reached agreement on the critical issues of how much money to appropriate to each department and agency.

“The appropriators have basically worked out everything. The real questions now are really above the appropriators’ level,” Representative Tom Cole, a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, told me late last week.

The wall has remained the chief sticking point—not so much between Republicans and Democrats as between Congress and the White House. Democrats had made clear from the outset they would not green light funds for a project they consider to be an immoral boondoggle and one which, as they are quick to remind the public, Trump promised would be paid for by Mexico. And although the president had requested a $1.4 billion downpayment in the current budget talks, Republicans were content to put off the fight until lawmakers debate spending levels for 2018. The GOP’s reluctance to insist on wall funding was also due to divisions within their party, as most of the lawmakers representing the border have withheld their support for the project.

But in recent days, both Trump and his top advisers have tried to jam the wall back into the negotiations. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, has suggested a trade in which the administration would agree to continue making payments to health insurers that Democrats are seeking for the Affordable Care Act if they agreed to begin funding the wall. Democrats rejected the idea immediately, but Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, and Sean Spicer, the chief spokesman, have continued to insist the wall money is a top priority for the president, along with extra funds for the Defense Department that Democrats are less likely to oppose.

“If the administration insists on funding for a wall in this bill, it will endanger the prospects of a bill passing and raise the prospects of a government shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned in a floor speech on Monday afternoon.

Yet despite the administration’s increasingly aggressive advocacy for the wall money, it’s not clear that Trump would actually shut down the government over it. Would the president veto a spending bill that stiffed his treasured project? Neither he nor his senior aides have been willing to make that threat. In comments over the weekend and on Monday, they’ve each left open the possibility of a compromise in which Democrats would approve more money for border security so long as it doesn’t go toward developing or constructing a physical wall. And in a meeting on Monday with conservative journalists, Trump reportedly said he would be willing to wait until the next government funding battle in September to get money for the wall. Democrats leaped at the possibility that the president had flinched; Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi each released statements praising Trump for apparently softening his demands.

Congress could also head off a last-minute standoff by doing what it does best—buying more time. Republican leaders could put up a bill extending the funding deadline by a few days or even a week, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of national parks and museums closing their doors on Trump’s 100th day in office. Democrats have the power to shut down the government by staging a filibuster in the Senate, and they have warned that they will only support a stopgap measure if the parties have reached a broader agreement. But they would be hard-pressed to block a short-term bill that continues current funding without objectionable policies.

Democrats clearly relish the idea of a showdown with Trump over the wall. Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, do not. “I wouldn’t risk a $1 trillion funding bill for a $3 billion wall,” Cole said Monday on Morning Joe.” “There’s another way, another time, to do this.”

Republicans remember well that they took the blame for the last government shutdown, in 2013. And that was when Democrats held both the White House and the Senate. In this case, it would be Democrats provoking a shutdown if they blocked legislation containing funding for the wall with a Senate filibuster. But leaders in both parties believe that voters would fault the party they just entrusted with unified control of the government.

Trump believes he has leverage in the subsidies for Obamacare, which are the subject of a lawsuit that House Republicans filed against the Obama administration. While the litigation proceeds, it is up to the administration whether to continue making payments to insurers to help alleviate cost of covering high-risk, more expensive customers under the law. But there, too, the president might be mistaken in his calculations. While Democrats have insisted on language in the spending bill requiring the government to continue the subsidies, a number of top Republicans have also backed the payments on a temporary basis to avoid a meltdown in the insurance market that would hurt their constituents—and for which they might take the blame. “I personally don't think we ought to be disrupting markets,” Cole told me, noting that both Trump and congressional leaders have promised not to pull the rug out from people while the GOP tries to repeal Obamacare.

The next few days are likely to present the president with a stark choice. He can take the deal Democrats and Republicans are negotiating on Capitol Hill, which almost certainly will give him some of his defense and border money but not funds specifically designated for the wall. Or he can confront the Democrats and risk a shutdown, setting up a partisan clash earlier in his presidency than many in Congress expected. But if Trump chooses to fight, he must first make sure he has his reluctant party behind him.