Politics

The Looming Budget Showdown Has Exposed the GOP’s Essential Trumpishness

Freedom Caucus Republicans want to tie the refugee-punching American SAFE Act to a short-term funding package.

trump ryan.
Donald Trump, left, and Paul Ryan.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Ralph Freso/Getty Images.

Congress is back in session for a few weeks, and House Republicans are eager to show that they’re the party of serious solutions—not the supernumeraries in some demagogic Donald Trump reality show, even if they would reluctantly prefer him to Hillary Clinton. Serious conservative constitutionalist freedom-enhancing solutions, and adult governance: That’s what’s they’ll want you to remember about this September.

And they’ll get to that, right after punching some refugees.

It’s the first week after Labor Day, and our autumnal rites are upon us. The school year restarts, swimming pools close up for the season, football resumes, and the U.S. Congress returns to pass a short-term continuing resolution before government funding expires only to be stymied by a bloc of conservative House members who have the leverage to disrupt their chamber temporarily but not really get anything passed into law. The smell of apple cider is in the air, or not.

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When House Speaker Paul Ryan assumed his role last fall, he pledged a return to regular order, which meant in part the timely consideration and passage of 12 individual appropriations bills. This was to be in contrast to the usual state of affairs the past few years, in which Congress would buy more time at the end of the fiscal year via a temporary funding measure that runs into December to complete appropriations bills, pack them all into one large “omnibus” spending bill, and then jam through the whole trillion-dollar-plus package while members are itching to fly home for the holidays. Here we are, almost one year into Ryan’s speakership, which has afforded him full rein over the FY 2017 funding process. What’s the goal? It’s to pass a temporary funding measure that runs into December and then jam through an omnibus funding deal in the lame-duck session. It is what it is, and what it is is an election year. It’s also precisely what John Boehner, or anyone else with this responsibility, would be doing if he were in charge.

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The House Freedom Caucus—the group of 40 or so conservatives behind Boehner’s ouster who have the numbers to defeat bills from the Republican leadership—is calling for a longer funding extension into 2017 that would allow the next president and Congress to fund the government. They’re probably not going to get that and erase a year’s worth of appropriators’ work. And though they fancy playing government shutdown chicken, they’re not likely to pull that stuff a month before the election. They need some sort of face-saving sop from leadership so Freedom Caucus members can show they “got something.”

So what could that sop be? Politico reports that it may involve some good old-fashioned refugee fearmongering. The Freedom Caucus is “planning to tell leadership they will back a short-term funding package if they can tuck in a bill by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) to stop the resettlement program until the administration ‘can assure no terrorists or individuals with radical sympathies or views will be admitted,’ according to a summary of the bill,” Politico reports.

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That bill would be the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, introduced last year in the chaos following the Paris attacks. It passed the House of Representatives, with a decent number of Democratic votes, before being killed by Senate Democrats. As I wrote last year, the bill cleverly masks what’s effectively a total freeze on Syrian or Iraqi refugee resettlement as another layer of vetting. It’s not evidence-based. It’s demagogic. It’s Trumpish in its essence. No House Republicans voted against it, and if it’s attached to this temporary spending bill, then I doubt any Republicans will vote against it this time, either. (It would then either be blocked in the Senate or vetoed, and we’d be back to the drawing board, so whatever.)

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Remember this moment. House conservatives are considering whether to make this their big ask on a must-pass spending bill. Remember this the next time someone on the right tries to say Trump’s nomination was an anomaly.

Though Freedom Caucus members mostly support Trump now, thanks to constituent pressure and hatred of Clinton, they expressed their reservations about doing so earlier in the year. “A lot of us are really nervous,” Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon told Talking Points Memo in March. “We feel Obama’s a tyrant. A lot of people are worried about trading their tyrant for our tyrant.” Colorado Rep. Ken Buck explained that “[w]e want to create economic opportunity for people, and Trump has been more vicious in his language than any of the other Republican candidates when it comes to demeaning people.” Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said, “I have been asked on many occasions what I would do if this race comes down to a one on one contest between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. Each time, I have responded that as a conservative, I cannot trust Mr. Trump to do the right thing.”

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These figures largely classified themselves as Sen. Ted Cruz–type constitutional movement conservatives, rather than Trumpish nationalists. But Cruz himself, back when he was drafting off Trump, called for a religious test as part of the refugee vetting process. And earlier this year, he called for both a freeze on Syrian refugee resettlement and the “need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” The reason these Republicans got behind such measures is that they rate highly with their most vocal constituents, whose fear is readily harnessed into political energy.

All of this has made it, and continues to make it, quite difficult to believe these conservatives when they distance themselves from Trump’s most bigoted proposals, such as the Muslim ban. Trump is just tapping into the same energy source with more efficiency. Responding to terrorist attacks that Syrian refugees have not committed with an effective ban on their resettlement is not brilliant, responsible constitutionalist conservative policymaking. It’s demagoguery from a party that’s feasted on it since well before Donald Trump converted it into a presidential nomination.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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