“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.
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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.