President Donald Trump has shut down much of the federal government to make Congress pay for a border wall. His position is foolish, because a wall won’t work. It’s dishonest, because he promised that Mexico would pay for the wall. It’s destructive, because he has taken government employees hostage. And it’s unpopular.
Trump’s standoff has put congressional Republicans in a box. So they’re pretending there’s nothing they can do about it. The president is dug in, they say, and Democrats have to deal with him. But that’s not true. Republicans in Congress could reopen the government tomorrow. They’re ducking their duty and hiding their cowardice.
On Thursday, Democrats were sworn in as the new majority in the House of Representatives. They passed bills to reopen the government without addressing the wall. But Republicans didn’t join them. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said the Democratic bills were pointless because Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, wouldn’t let his colleagues vote on them. “Leader McConnell has said he’s not bringing anything up that’s not going to become law,” said McCarthy. Rep. Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference, dismissed the Democrats’ legislation as a stunt because “it won’t get taken up in the Senate.”
Why won’t McConnell take up these bills? Because Trump won’t sign them. “The Senate will not waste its time” on any bill that “the president will not sign,” McConnell decreed on Wednesday. Two days later, McConnell stipulated, “Any viable compromise will need to carry the endorsement of the president before it receives a vote in either house of Congress.” The Democrats’ legislation to reopen government was just “time-wasting,” said McConnell, because the administration had already said Trump would veto it.
So McCarthy has passed the buck to McConnell, and McConnell has passed the buck to Trump. McConnell says the matter is out of his hands, because you can’t enact laws without the president’s consent. On Friday, McConnell lectured Democrats in civics. “Making laws takes a presidential signature,” he told them. “We all learned that in grade school.” Other Republican senators agree. Unless “the president agrees to sign a bill,” says Sen. Susan Collins, it “won’t become law.”
That’s not true. Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution says bills passed by the House and Senate must go to the president. At that point, they can become law in either of two ways. One is that the president signs them. The other is that he vetoes them, but they’re “repassed by two thirds” of each chamber.
The Senate has already proved it has enough votes to override a veto. On Dec. 19, McConnell brought up legislation to fund the government through February, with no money for the wall. Senators passed that bill by voice vote and without dissent. Then Trump made a stink about the wall, and the House—at that point still controlled by Republicans—added wall money to the bill. Senate Democrats refused to support the wall money, and that produced the current standoff. When House Democrats took over and brought up legislation similar to what the Senate had passed—money to fund the government but not the wall—234 Democrats voted yes. To produce a two-thirds majority, House Republicans only need to supply 56 more votes. That’s less than 30 percent of their caucus.
Republicans know they should do this. They know that a wall, even if you believe in it, isn’t the kind of thing for which you should shut down the government. You can always open the government and then fight for the wall, as you would for any other appropriation. But they don’t have the guts to defy Trump. So they’re hiding behind the pretense that they understand the ways of the world—“making laws takes a presidential signature”—and that Democrats are naïve. Last week on the Senate floor, McConnell said five times that bills opposed by Trump wouldn’t be considered, since, by definition, they weren’t “serious.” He called them “show votes,” “posturing,” and “political theater.”
Republicans are also hiding behind Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. On Dec. 22, during a debate about funding the government, Schumer said “the president must publicly support and say he will sign an agreement before it gets a vote in either chamber.” McConnell and McCarthy claim that this statement supports their refusal to consider legislation opposed by Trump. They’re lying. In his speech, Schumer explained that he was advocating a constraint on the president, not on Congress. “Repeatedly, the president has privately agreed to a deal with congressional leaders, only to reverse himself when criticized by the far right,” said Schumer. “We can’t have another situation when the president signals support at first but then reverses himself.”
If Republican leaders agreed with Trump’s position, you’d expect them to defend it on the merits. But they don’t, because it’s so nonsensical that even Trump can’t defend it. On Friday, a reporter asked him why departments that had nothing to do with border security should stay closed while Congress debated the wall. Trump couldn’t think of a reason. He said he just didn’t feel like it: “We want to do it all at one time. We don’t want to take it in pieces. We just don’t want to do that.” Another reporter asked Trump why he wasn’t building the wall with money from Mexico, as he had promised, instead of demanding money from taxpayers. “Because I didn’t have to,” the president replied.
Republicans also know Trump’s position is a loser. In polls, Americans blame him for the shutdown, oppose a “spending bill that includes funding for a wall on the southern US border,” and oppose “shutting down the federal government until Congress approves funding for the US-Mexico border wall.” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor and polling adviser, is trying to dump the word wall, which she knows has become unpopular, and Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, complains that Democrats are playing hardball “because they think the president is paying a price politically.” House and Senate Republicans don’t want to pay the same price. So they feign helplessness.
Trump plans to make his case in a prime-time TV address on Tuesday. But he, too, claims to be a prisoner of events. On Sunday, referring to the wall, he pleaded: “We have to have it. Gotta have it. We have no choice. … You think I like doing this? I don’t like doing this. But we have no choice.”
Wrong. We do have a choice. So do McConnell, McCarthy, and all their Republican members. They can reopen the government, with or without Trump’s consent. If they don’t, that’s on them.