How the Government Broke Down

12 minute read

As much as President Donald Trump has bent the office to match his skills as a reality television impresario and media savant, the early-morning Saturday partial government shutdown brought into focus this cruel reality about his latest production: there are no reshoots in the presidency.

Trump badly misread the blocking that unfolded in the new year. He did not anticipate how the audience watching at home would react; polls indicated nothing but trouble ahead of the Republicans. The villains of the Trump-scripted drama, the Democrats, turned out to be a more formidable and unified bloc than he had anticipated. For those Democrats, any votes to keep open the government were conditioned on a deal to protect young people who came to the country illegally as children. Trump had seemed to agree to this demand before only to reverse himself later.

Even the last-minute theatrics seemed weak. The delayed then canceled liftoff from the White House’s South Lawn on a Marine helicopter! The postponed glitzy gala at the President’s personal golf club in Palm Beach, Fla.! The motorcade delivering the top Democrat in the Senate to the White House gates! It all seemed like set pieces in a drama whose outcome was already known.

After all, why spend the day amping up the crowd if the show ends not with a cliffhanger, but in going off a cliff? Despite its predictability, this was not the ending the White House had anticipated.

Friday began lacking urgency. Yet there was more than a little apprehension among Republicans on Friday as a clock ticking down to a midnight shutdown in the corner of the three major cable networks. The White House dispatched its budget and legislative chiefs to spin reporters in the morning. But it was a latent fear, not anything that made the pulse race.

At the Capitol, there was amazement that two of the White House’s most valuable players at that hour were preparing to do press over policy, shaming over substance. It was a made-for-TV moment if ever Trump produced one. But at what cost to the actual art of governing?

Later, Trump summoned the top Democrat in the Senate to the White House for 90 minutes of one-on-one negotiating session in the afternoon. Tense talks gave way to promises to talk again in a few hours. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, made a brief statement about “good progress” and went behind closed doors to see what, if any, deal was possible. Schumer, who is typically loquacious with reporters, was unusually curt. It was the first sign that both sides were looking for a lifeboat from the sinking raft of government.

The most curious thing about the Capitol on Friday afternoon, when no solution to the partisan stalemate was to be found, was just how quiet it was. While Schumer was at the White House, Senate Republicans took a leisurely lunch together, eating barbecue in a dining room across the corridor from the chamber doors. The congressional press corps lingered in the hallways, waiting for negotiation updates that never came and wondering if UberEats would deliver pizza directly to the Capitol.

Never mind an imminent federal crisis: when lawmakers emerged from their offices — if only to do a quick hit for cable news on said crisis — they seemed serene, if a little dazed. Chalk it up to resignation.

“The government shuts down in five hours and forty minutes and there’s no solution,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, told reporters outside of his office as dusk fell on Capitol Hill. “I don’t know whether Senator Schumer is just determined to take it all down. I personally think they got so far out over their skis and now they’re trying to save face.”

Later in the evening, after the vote was clearly doomed, the urgency finally reached a crescendo. To Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s right, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren was patting his shoulder in an effort to assure him that all was not lost. Bipartisanship was found, but far too late.

Even so, Democrats recognized the peril at hand.

“That’s a hard sell when McConnell doesn’t have 50 votes in his own caucus,” a senior Democratic aide scoffed, when asked about the drama. “He can’t blame Democrats when Republicans aren’t voting for it. And Trump’s standing in the way of a bipartisan deal that could solve all of this.”

As the clock hands ticked past midnight, Republicans Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and Lamar Alexander wandered into the Democratic scrum of nearly two dozen senators from both parties huddled around Schumer’s desk, deep in spirited conversation. Hope for a last minute deal lingered; at one point, Schumer and Graham bumped fists. But the lawmakers were still there when the clock struck twelve and the government officially shut down.

At the Capitol and at the White House, officials and their senior aides knew the biggest unknown was the President himself. Trump wanted to look tough and savvy, the New York real estate mogul sent to Washington to shake up the town. He wanted to cow the Democrats and his own Republicans alike. An alpha male at his peak, at a landmark date on the calendar.

Throughout the West Wing, aides had circled the date in red Sharpie. January 20, Saturday, marks the one-year anniversary of the President’s inauguration. At just the moment when Trump sought to celebrate — at his private club in Florida, where tickets started at $100,000 per couple, no less — he was instead watching his government grind to a halt. White House officials said Friday morning that the President wouldn’t depart until there was a deal, although few thought there were any real chances of the President failing to get something in hand.

Some White House officials scoffed that the suggestion that the President was not well aware of the drama in the making. For years, he held court as a judge on a top reality show that approximated business acumen. Trump prides himself on being a dealmaker of another order. This, to the minds of Trump apologists, was the reason Americans elected him to this role. After all, during the campaign, he boasted that he alone could fix Washington, strike better deals and negotiate the United States to unmatched prosperity. This was his window to prove them right.

Shutdowns are seldom good politics, especially not for the party that controls the White House. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released midday Friday found much more peril in a shutdown for Republicans by a 20 percentage-point margin than Democrats. A separate poll from CNN, released a few hours later, found a similar 16 percentage-point gap.

Republicans have never before presided over a shutdown while in control of all levers of power in Washington, and they were already bracing for a tough 2018 election cycle without the prospect of things falling apart on their watch. To perhaps blunt the backlash, Republicans were pushing a coordinated message branding this “the Schumer Shutdown.” Clever, yes. Defining, maybe.

But insulting Schumer was unlikely to shake loose his caucus, which in recent weeks has seen the number of members willing to vote against stopgap funding bills go from eight on Dec. 7 to 30 on Dec. 21. Internally, senior Democrats expected that number to have grown to at least 40 this week — enough to block any continued funding, even without expected Republican defections. The final vote was 50-49, far short of the 60 votes needed.

The fact that, as time was scarce and the two sides were not talking, they were posturing on blame spoke everything. There was silence between McConnell and Schumer for most of Friday. The White House said Trump was phoning Congress but declined to say who was picking up the phone on the other end. There was not even comity to be had when it came to scheduling a vote on the House-passed stopgap measure; everyone expected it to fail but no one could agree to when it would do so well after sundown. (The House version narrowly cleared its hurdle on Thursday night, sending a dead-on-arrival, four-week stopgap measure to the Senate.)

At first, House Republicans were told they were free to go home. Then, they were told to stay close by in case they needed to pass a brief patch for funding. The House is scheduled to be away from Washington next week, although aides to leadership said that was also negotiable. No one wanted to be among constituents who see the government closed for business while House members cut ribbons on post offices back home.

As the evening wore on, lawmakers — and their donors — started to sound the alarm a little louder. But hard work of compromise during the urgent, not the panicked. For most of Friday, it was open season on the other. The House attacked the Senate. The Senate attacked the White House. Republicans blamed Democrats. Each side absorbed the blow and then returned just as good as they got.

There was no scramble to find compromise. No one was offering sacrifice. The White House insisted this shutdown would be better than the last, that it wouldn’t be quite as back as 2013. “We don’t want this, we do not want a shutdown. But Mr. Schumer insists on it, he is in a position to force this on the American people,” White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney told reporters. (Yes, that is the same Mulvaney who, during the 2013 standoff, fancied himself a charter member of the Shutdown Caucus.)

As a reminder that we live in a hyperpartisan, election-focused environment, most of the talk among leaders in both parties centered on who should carry the blame for a shutdown for most of the day. Republicans cast the responsibility on the Democrats, the minority party in both the House and Senate. Republicans concocted an elaborate trap for those Democrats: the House GOP linked funding for a lapsed children’s health insurance program with the shutdown and dared the Democrats to vote against care for sick kids.

The Republican talking point cast the deal as a vote against the military in the name of helping children who came to the country illegally. That rhetoric was galling to some members of Congress. Question a man’s judgment, fine. But his patriotism? That’s a whole other matter.

Democrats in recent weeks have felt emboldened to make their demands. The President’s polling remains mired in the muck. The Dreamers are increasingly organized. DACA is popular, inside both parties, and shows no sign of relenting, especially as its future is uncertain. “We are frustrated, obviously,” White House legislative chief Marc Short said Friday. “They are hellbent on getting to a shutdown,” he said of the Democrats.

Left unsaid? Trump set this in motion by ending the DACA program, promising to restore it if Congress brought him legislation and then balked when his far-right advisers erupted.

The White House also said the bipartisan deal being shopped in the Senate was fake news. “There is no bill. Show me the bill,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley scoffed.

Then, a third possible message coming from the same 18 acres that make up the White House complex. Mulvaney sought to say DACA could wait. “There’s no reason you have to deal with DACA this week,” he said at the White House.

Actually, that’s not true. If Republicans need Democratic votes to keep open the doors of government, then DACA needs to be dealt with when the Democrats say so. Otherwise, getting to 60 votes required in the Senate is impossible. At the same time, Republicans were starting to splinter. Graham said he would not vote for another temporary funding plan.”I am not going to support continuing this fiasco for 30 more days,” Graham tweeted. “It’s time Congress stop the cycle of dysfunction, grow up, and act consistent with the values of a great nation.”

A few hours later, when reporters spotted him on the White House driveway and swarmed him, budget maven Mulvaney moved the goalpost of getting a funding deal in place to before businesses were supposed to open on Monday. He said Senators may opt to modify the House version — perhaps move it from a four-week to 10-day extension, for instance — thus requiring the House to vote again. “If the Senate changes anything, it’s going to have to back to the House. Now in theory, the Senate could deal with it before midnight and the House could in some fashion deal with it before midnight,” he said. “It’s more likely that if the Senate makes any changes it would take the House a while to get everybody back for the vote.”

Meanwhile, the President was tweeting that he wanted to have a month-long delay. After the House version failed, the White House press secretary called those who blocked it “obstructionist losers.”

McConnell took the Senate floor ahead of the vote to demand his rivals drop their objections. But in doing so, he signaled that he wasn’t even looking for anything durable, just another can kicked down the road. “Let’s fund the government for a full month so we can actually get something done,” McConnell said.

In the Senate, where Democratic lawmakers privately questioned if they had overplayed their hand as they shuffled out of the Capitol on Thursday, doubts faded by Friday evening. The Republican effort to spin — not negotiate solutions — played right into Democrats’ hands, senior Democrats felt. Republicans continued to sputter their objections and tried to make process their friend.

“They have their fingerprints all over this,” Ryan said of the Democrats.”This is legislative hostage-taking.”

Maybe. But they made their demands and Republicans would do well to remember them if they want government open on Monday morning.

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