It’s Actually Not a “Good Time” for a Government Shutdown

Despite what the president tweets, he knows this. Here’s how Trump will save face when he caves.

Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and Chuck Schumer portraits in black and white, photo-collaged next to each other on a red background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Ron Sachs—Pool/Getty Images.

Despite what you may have heard, there will be no government shutdown at the end of this week. The death of President George H.W. Bush on Friday prompted the House of Representatives, in its grieving, to take the whole week off. Instead of arguing about funding for physical barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border at Bush’s state funeral on Wednesday, congressional leaders have agreed to punt the deadline for a partial government shutdown two weeks. The new date, Dec. 21, is, not coincidentally, just four days ahead of Christmas, when lawmakers traditionally abandon their firm ideological principles and just vote for whatever they have to in order to make their flights home.

The two weeks of additional brainstorming are unlikely to produce a new way to bridge the gap between $5 billion and $1.6 billion: That first figure is what President Donald Trump is requesting in “wall money” and the second what Senate Democrats are willing to give him in “fencing money.” The spending deal, which would lump together all seven incomplete appropriations bills, is just about entirely resolved except for that gulf. Expect Trump to cave.

Trump loves to brag about how excited he is to shut down the government. He openly mused about shutting it down at the last spending deadline, in September, but congressional Republican leaders pleaded with him to kick the fight to December. They got their wish, and the president is once again blabbing publicly about how it’s a “good time” for a shutdown. But just as in September, there’s no clear shutdown endgame for the president in sight. And he’s in an even worse spot now, since his most loyal friends in Washington—House Republicans—will be out of power in the very near future.

The Democratic takeover of the House makes it more pressing for Trump that he get the wall money he wants right now—and less likely that he gets it. His chances of constructing the wall of his dreams will be shot once Democrats take control of the chamber. But if there’s a protracted government shutdown that carries through the holidays, it will be resolved by that new House Democratic majority anyway—and after the already unpopular president has taken a hit by shutting down the government over the unpopular issue of a border wall.

In other words, congressional Republicans will be spending these next several weeks finding the president an out.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has offered the president a couple. In a floor speech last week, Schumer suggested that Senate Democrats would go along with either another continuing resolution to fund the rest of the government at previously authorized levels through the remainder of the fiscal year, or the bipartisan deal that the Senate Appropriations Committee struck earlier this year. That one would have included $1.6 billion “for approximately 65 miles of pedestrian fencing in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Senate Democrats are already facing a lot of heat for offering that much. When Schumer announced last week that Democrats stood by their $1.6 billion position, he didn’t seem to recognize that most people weren’t aware Democrats had already agreed to that figure over the summer. Schumer has taken incoming from both the Democratic base and House Democrats, who enjoy blaming their Senate counterparts for screwing everything up.

House Republicans could try, first, to pin the blame for a shutdown on Schumer by passing a spending bill with the $5 billion in wall funding that would have no chance of passing in the Senate. There are a couple of problems with this strategy, though. The first is that, well, Trump would still probably get blamed because his insistence on the unpopular policy is at the source of the logjam. The second is that House Republicans might not have enough votes to pass such a bill on their own: A good number of the suburban Republicans who won’t be returning are thinking about running again, and they’ll be less inclined this time to go along with all of Trump’s whims.

So here’s an endgame: Trump accepts the $1.6 billion with an immaterial tweak or two ahead of the Dec. 21 deadline, says that’s what he wanted in the first place and that he’ll come back for more in the new year, perhaps through an immigration deal with Democrats (that never happens). Everyone goes off and enjoys the holidays, and by the time the new Congress convenes in January, nobody remembers any of this. And Trump, without enough money for his precious wall, still gets to run on building it.