Anyone who says that the era of divided government will begin when Democrats take control of the House next month clearly hasn’t been watching Congress closely for the past few years. There’s already been divided government—it’s just divisions among Republicans that have defined the era.
Speaker Paul Ryan is on the verge of handing over the gavel to Nancy Pelosi, but first the GOP majority was determined to squeeze in one last crisis. Whereas Washington seemed headed for an uneventful end to its funding plight on Wednesday evening, a shutdown seemed more and more likely just 24 hours later.
On Thursday night, the House passed a funding measure that allocates $5 billion for border security and a wall, as requested by President Donald Trump. The bill passed 217–185, with eight Republicans voting against it. That puts the House in conflict with the Senate, which on Wednesday approved legislation funding the government through February without money for the wall.
The upper chamber is expected to vote on the House-passed measure by midday Friday, and Democrats strongly oppose funding the wall. And because any bill needs 60 votes to clear the Senate, this one is almost certain to fail. Trump has also said he won’t sign a measure without the wall funding. If Congress can’t reach a deal by the end of the day Friday, the government will partially shut down. Trump has embraced this possibility.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” Trump said last week during a meeting with the Democratic leaders Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.”
Yet the White House spent several days afterward softening the president’s position, saying the administration could find money for security by rearranging existing budgets. Without a hope in the Senate, Trump and his hard-line allies seemed to have no viable alternative.
They still don’t. Nonetheless, Trump told House leaders Thursday morning that he wouldn’t sign the Senate bill, throwing Washington into chaos. The drama was further exacerbated by the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who revealed in a letter late Thursday afternoon that he’s leaving the administration over policy differences with the president.
With no other proposal from Trump or the House GOP in the offing, and with Trump apparently hoping that enough Democrats blink for the Senate to allocate the $5 billion—a highly unlikely outcome—it’s unclear how the impasse is supposed to end, which makes it more likely that the government will run out of money and be forced to partially shut down on Friday.
It’s tempting to blame Trump for this, and he is obviously partly to blame. But one should not underestimate the extent to which the Republican Congress was a mess on its own. Trump has proved effective at aggravating the chaos, but he didn’t create it. He is perhaps more a symptom than he is the cause.
One more shutdown would be an appropriate end to both the Republican majority in the House, since 2010, and the period of unified Republican control of Congress, since 2014. Both periods have been exercises in tumult, largely the creations of renegade House conservatives and leadership unable or unwilling to bring them in line. There was a major skirmish over the debt ceiling in 2011, even though increasing the federal borrowing limit had no effect on government spending. Two years later, there was a 10-month standoff in which the GOP-dominated House once again refused to raise the debt ceiling, culminating in a two-week shutdown in October.
By fall 2015, then-Speaker John Boehner had had enough, including a failed coup in July of that year, and decided to retire. That left Ryan as the reluctant speaker. Though he had stronger conservative bona fides, he proved little more able to wrangle his raucous caucus than Boehner had been. Hard-line conservatives in the House refused to go along with Ryan’s agenda, depriving him of votes even when they couldn’t pass their own ideas. There was a fitful attempt to unseat Ryan, too.
Even after Trump became president, with unified GOP control of the Senate, House, and White House, the Republican legislative agenda remained largely frozen. Congress failed to pass a replacement for Obamacare, despite having spent years promising to do so. Legislators were able to pass a slate of tax cuts in late 2017, but it was far smaller than the total overhaul of the tax code they’d hoped for.
As Christmas approached, the lame-duck Congress seemed to be limping toward a stopgap measure for funding. As usual, leadership was struggling to keep members together, a task made more complicated by Trump’s bellows about his wall and by the results of the midterm elections: Vanquished Republicans had little interest in hanging around Washington to help pass an unpopular measure, rather than being with their family at home.
A punt would have been in character for a Congress that couldn’t get much done. A shutdown, with no clear path out, would be an even more fitting result.
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