The Possibility of a Shutdown Agreement Plunged Toward Absolute Zero This Week

Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump.
Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images and Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images.

What does it look like for a legislative stalemate of four weeks, during which time zero progress has been made toward a conclusion, to actually begin getting worse? It looks much like the two central players in the stalemate trolling each other through the cancellation of the other’s plans.

With progress toward ending the deadlock plunging toward absolute zero, President Donald Trump announced Friday evening that he would be making a “major announcement concerning the Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border, and the Shutdown, tomorrow afternoon at 3 P.M., live from the [White House].” Speculation was that this might be his long-rumored national emergency declaration—e.g., a punt of his wall fight to the courts—and that it might not. But one thing was clear after the most cartoonish week of the shutdown yet: The only fresh ideas coming out of the White House or the Capitol are hijinks.

Early this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who determines who is and who isn’t allowed to address the House of Representatives, “suggested” that Trump delay his State of the Union address until the government was reopened. Trump spent a day digging around for the proper countertroll and arrived at canceling her congressional delegation’s government transport to Brussels and Afghanistan, a trip that had previously been kept under wraps for security purposes. On Friday, the speaker and her delegation gave up on their commercial travel accommodations, blaming the White House for blowing the lid off of that too.

“We’ll go another time,” Pelosi told reporters on Friday, expressing unusual confidence that the government would ever reopen.

It’s unclear what other items either Pelosi or Trump might have on the schedule that the other could cancel. If there’s anything else, each side should pre-emptively cancel their own plans immediately so that we can move on to the next phase of shutdown prankery—whoopee cushions?—and then, when all else is exhausted, perhaps some sort of negotiation.

With competing pressures keeping the bulk of both parties firmly in their own corners, it has proved quite difficult for smaller, bipartisan “gangs” in either party to garner any support for even their most small-bore proposals. And really, these “gangs”—one in the House, one in the Senate—have only considered variations of one proposal: Republicans reopening the government along with vague Democratic winking to the president that they might be open to some physical barrier in negotiations afterward.

On Wednesday, members of the House’s bipartisan, centrist “Problem Solvers Caucus” visited the White House. The seven Democratic members who attended released a statement afterward saying that “there is … strong agreement that if we reopen the government, the possibility exists to work together and find common ground to tackle some of our country’s toughest problems and fix them.” Whoever penned that masterstroke of banality deserves a promotion.

I asked Rep. Tom Reed, the Republican co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, what progress was made at the meeting.

“The step was taken … with Democratic members going to the White House,” Reed said. “That was a good step. If you’re not even going to the room, to the table, to have a conversation, then we’ll never get anywhere. So hopefully this will breed more of those conversations.” In other words, no progress was made at the meeting. The caucus was unable to solve this particular problem, where Trump wants wall money as a condition of reopening the government, and Democrats won’t negotiate until the government is reopened.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group began meeting on Monday to solve the irresolvable problem. They drafted a letter in which they promised to debate and mark up the president’s border security request—if the president first agreed to sign a bill opening the government for three weeks. The letter, though, only said that the markup would include “debating and voting on investments on the Southern border that are necessary, effective, and appropriate to accomplish that goal.”

Much like the statement from the Problem Solvers Caucus, this one wouldn’t go so far as to say that Democrats would be willing to throw a few bucks toward the wall. The group had wanted to find language that could get signatures from 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats, but the White House successfully stanched the flow of Republican ink. The letter wasn’t sent.

If Trump is refusing to consider anything less than guaranteed money for his wall, and Democrats aren’t willing to say that they’ll give him wall money after he reopens the government, the fourth week of the shutdown ends the same way as the previous three did: with no legislative path out of the shutdown. The only progress made this week was toward a higher level of trolling.