“Before, the parties were negotiating quite well until Donald Trump and the White House threw a monkey wrench into it,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on a conference call Monday morning. “If the president stepped out of it, we could get a budget done by Friday.”
Call co-host Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, proffered a similar take: “I know appropriators try very hard to work in a bipartisan way, and that was the path that we were on until the president intervened.”
Thanks to Trump’s ham-fisted meddling, charge Democrats, the budget talks have gone from civilized and low-key to, as the House aide put it, utterly “whackadoo.”
Now, shrewd students of Congress may be inclined to point out that the budgeting process never runs smoothly. And the notion that, in the current political climate, negotiations would have continued chugging along until a bipartisan agreement was amicably reached is, well, whackadoo. (If nothing else, sticky issues tend to get kicked to the end of the process, and it’s when appropriators hand the bill off to leadership that things often turn ugly.)
From a messaging standpoint, however, Dems’ blaming Trump for poisoning the well of this budget battle is a no-brainer.
“This is one of the oldest plays in the playbook,” said Jim Manley, a former Senate aide to Democratic leadership. “What Democrats are trying to do here is drive a wedge between House and Senate Republicans and the White House.”
“He is the head of the party, whether the Rs like it or not,” a former House leadership staffer emailed me. “And he is the most unpopular President at the 100-day mark of any president in modern times, so of course Dems will lay this at his doorstep.”
Ironically, since before Trump was even sworn in, congressional Democrats have been saying that their strategy would be to look for ways to drive a wedge between the president and GOP lawmakers—though in precisely the opposite direction. Dems said they were open to working with Trump on progressive-friendly policies like infrastructure and trade, while stiff-arming Paul Ryan and Co.’s conservative agenda.
But Trump’s chest-thumping over the border wall proved too perfect a target for Democrats to ignore. And so their divide-and-conquer strategy, at least temporarily, took a 180-degree turn.
Not that Hill Dems are remotely disingenuous in voicing frustration and outrage over the president’s intrusion. “It really is Trump’s fault. He is the one insisting on including the wall, not Congress, and that is a deal breaker for Dems,” said the former House staffer.
Until Trump started with all the chest beating, stressed the current House aide, Republican legislators were not talking about the wall. “They were talking about getting some face-saving additional border security funding—non-wall technology or something. Everybody thought that would be the way this played out.” But then the president began issuing demands and threats, many of them delivered by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.