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Trump in the Rose Garden shortly after tweeting on May 2 that a shutdown is still possible Mark Wilson—Getty Images

The Budget Battle Shows That Trump Needs to Read the Fine Print

May 04, 2017

As Donald Trump's White House continued in hyperdrive to promote his first 100 days as a breakout reality-show hit, congressional aides a few blocks east were negotiating a deal to avert a disastrous government shutdown over the current funding agreement. The more than $1 trillion, almost 1,700-page bill, which keeps the lights on through September, served as a reality check for the President: the 535 voting members of Congress cannot be ignored. "I think he needs to understand our democratic system and our separation of branches," says Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. "This is not running a business. This is running a country."

No lesson has been so stinging for the neophyte President. His campaign promises face delay at the hands of an unexpected impediment: Republicans in the House and Senate, where party leaders have for years honed world-class obstructionist skills. Many have criticized Trump's dreams of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, a border tax that would cost middle-class families dearly and especially a prompt repeal of Obamacare that, for now, seems back on the shelf. Trump found himself repeatedly bedeviled and outgunned. "It's not fair," Trump told Fox News in an interview on the eve of his 100-day mark. "It forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, you're really forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules." Trump used the word archaic three more times in 20 minutes. Around the White House, Trump huffed that he hasn't yet been able to translate his real estate skills into legislative wins. He fumed that cable news cast him as a loser in the budget, even as his aides were promoting it. Trump took to Twitter, renewing threats of a "good shutdown" in September and changing Senate rules to make it easier to score wins. On the rule change, the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, responded, "That will not happen."

None of the drama reflected the contents of a budget that allows the government to avoid an embarrassing shutdown. Lawmakers boost spending to the Pentagon by $15 billion (well short of the $54 billion Trump wanted) and to the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion (Trump sought to gut the popular medical research labs). Republicans can cite both as reasons to cheer. "I think it's important that we govern and not just shut down the government," said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. "I think we need to move on."

Meanwhile, the spending stopgap preserves programs at the Environmental Protection Agency and provides none of the $1.4 billion Trump wanted to start building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border--moves that Democrats can claim as victories. In fact, the bill explicitly blocks Trump from even firing up the cement trucks for that wall. Also gone were conservative dreams of defunding Planned Parenthood and punishing sanctuary cities that don't comply with federal immigration law; the White House caved on demands for both.

Despite the setbacks, Trump tried to project a victory even as his own party took greater control of international affairs, typically the President's realm. The measure doubles the number of visas for workers from abroad, adds another 2,500 visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. military and sets aside $100 million to fight Russia's influence operations--all of which may be overshadowed by 140-character tirades once Trump learns about the pet projects and special provisions tucked into the bill. "Obviously, I wish he'd think twice before he tweeted," said Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who led the charge to add to the Pentagon's AmEx. Some officials dodged the President in the hallways, opting to stick to the West Wing's second floor where he seldom wanders.

This spending bill only gets Washington to the start of October. Then, White House officials say, they can take up the ideas again. Maybe, mused one, Trump might acquaint himself with those "archaic" processes of Washington that allowed a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the Capitol to outmaneuver him. After all, funding the massive government in concert with Congress is far tougher than issuing an ultimatum. Chuckled one aide to Senate Democrats: just wait until the Supreme Court hands him his first defeat.

--With reporting by SAM FRIZELL and ZEKE J. MILLER

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