Why Has the Government Shut Down? Because No One Has a Plan

13 minute read

As Senators shuffled back to Capitol Hill on Sunday evening for a highly unusual 1 a.m. vote, few were ready to undo the partial government shutdown that began late Friday — so much so that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately pushed the vote until midday Monday. If anything, the expected rejection of a three-week funding plan to fund the federal government made clear what most of Washington feared: no one was ready to blink.

So, the game of chicken went through the weekend. The first full week of the government shutdown was ready to begin. And each side was watching carefully to see if the other would show any signs of weakness or magnanimity — both potentially toxic in this shutdown.

The fight underway was fierce, yet the major players were not sure the rulebook governing their game or or which field they were doing battle on. As dusk fell on Washington and the vote grew closer, the Capitol was quiet. Stasis persisted. When asked about the status of bipartisan negotiations to reopen the government in a few hours, Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, was curt: “There is no bipartisan deal.” Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the longest-serving Senator and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, stopped to snap frames of the reporters who hovered in the corridors outside the Senate chamber. With no information about how he and his colleagues might reopen the government ahead of the morning commute either, he showed off photographs he’d taken of the previous night’s radiant sunset.

Most of the lawmakers were going through the motions, yet only a handful held out of hope of a grand bargain. The rare optimists weren’t necessarily working with the support of their party’s leadership.

Democrats remained steadfast that any votes to reopen the government were conditioned on serious and meaningful talks — if not action — to defend the almost 800,000 young people who came to the United States illegally as children, told the government they were here when promised protection from deportation and then found those promises undone by a new President. The Democrats’ activist base demands protections for these individuals, and their strategists realize the fast-growing bloc of potential Americans and their neighbors are too valuable to mistreat

Republicans in Congress maintained they were not willing to discuss these young immigrants, known colloquially as Dreamers, until they had the government back in business. House and Senate Republicans said the talk of Dreamers was extraneous to the task at hand: the basic functions of government, such as paying military members, processing new applications for Social Security and making payroll for federal workers who were on the job without guarantees of pay. Even the military serving abroad had been cut off from watching the NFL on Sunday; the government had to push pause on the military television service to bases.

“No. That’s ridiculous,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said when asked if he anticipated an immigration vote in the next three weeks. “The deadline is March 5. We’re more than happy to have a vote on it before the deadline, but turning the agenda over to Democrats who just shut down the government makes no sense. It seems like it encourages bad behavior.” (Shortly thereafter he said he was “pretty confident” that the immigration issue would be resolved in February, well in advance of the March 5 date when it is expected protections for Dreamers end entirely.)

And at the White House, President Donald Trump remained a wild card. His team offered mixed signals, and the President was not rushing in to referee. Some on his team cast the Dreamers as scofflaws who deserved no protections while men and women in military uniform served without pay. “The President’s position is clear: we will not negotiate on the status of unlawful immigrants while Senator Schumer and the Democrats hold the government for millions of Americans and our troops hostage,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Sunday night.

(In every past shutdown, military pay was never really in doubt. Unlike those previous ones, though, Congress was unable to carve out an exemption for them this time. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, spiked that.)

Others inside and close to the White House saw this standoff going very badly for the President the Republican Party. Gone was the promise of a “bill of love” that Trump himself promised in early January. Some White House advisers were trying to nudge the President to become more engaged while others urged restraint. Some of his outside advisers wanted him to burst onto the stage as a showy negotiator while others thought the shutdown was hurting Democrats plenty without the President raising a finger.

“I know a lot of senators have criticized White House staff,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told reporters in the Capitol on Sunday afternoon. “Let me be very clear here: advisers advise; Presidents decide. To imply that some staffer is somehow pulling the strings of the President is to impugn the President. The President ultimately makes his own decisions.”

One problem for Republicans: they weren’t sure what the President ultimately would decide and were plotting their paths rather blindly.

The President participated in photo-ops with the White House photographer on Saturday but otherwise was out of sight since midday Friday, when he spoke via video conference to a march of anti-abortion rights activists gathered nearby on the National Mall. Trump was forced to stay at the White House compound throughout the weekend and ditched a gala to mark his first year in office at his private beach club in Florida. The President spent much of his time in front of televisions watching how the shutdown was playing. On Sunday night, he logged onto Twitter to thank a Republican strategist for saying nice things about his first year in office during a hit on Fox News.

White House aides were considering the idea of a presidential address about the shutdown as early as Monday. The President was keen to do it, but many around him worried what his message might be. After all, rhetorical discipline was not the White House’s strong suit as this crisis has proved, and the President still hoped to jet off to a summit of global leaders in the Swiss Alps this week.

Some of the President’s advisers had advised against the Davos trip. After all, how would he square the image of hobnobbing with billionaires and industry titans days after proving the dysfunction of the U.S. political system? Others in the Administration told the President that if the United States was not there to lead, others such as China and Germany would step up to take the place, not just at the summit but in the global pecking order. That’s hardly America First, as promised.

Trump saw utility in making the trip to signal that some of the United States government was, in fact, still open — despite evidence and headlines. Officials said the schedule during the shutdown was a “day-to-day” process.

To that end, the White House tried to cast their schedule as orderly. Officials said the President spoke on Sunday to the secretaries of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs about how their Departments were weathering the shutdown. (A border wall and veterans were guaranteed applause lines during Trump’s campaign rallies, so it made sense to check in with members of his Cabinet overseeing those projects.) Trump also spoke to Kevin McCarthy, the second-in-command Republican in the House, and Cornyn, his Senate counterpart.

Meanwhile, White House chief of staff John Kelly handled calls with McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and then briefed the President. Kelly, whose relationship with the President has frayed in the new year, has tried to protect the President from political moves that may alienate his most conservative supporters who cast ballots for him in 2016 on the promise of a grand wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and that the Mexican government would pay for it.

For those at the White House and remaining in the Capitol, the standoff seemed interminable. The most liberal Democrats were ready to give the President the money to build the border wall in order to spare the Dreamers and to reopen the government, yet that was not sufficient it seemed. For them, they were willing to take the political hit if it meant protecting constituents to whom they promised protections at all costs.

“It that’s what it’s going to take in order to put 800,000 young men and women in this country, Dreamers, and put them in a safe place and put them on a course to full integration in our society, if that’s what the hostage takers of the Dreamers, if that’s their ransom call, I say pay it,” Rep. Luis Guitierez of Illinois told ABC News’ “This Week.” “Next November, we’ll deal with the kidnappers at the election at the polls. And let’s reopen the government.”

That was the position many Democrats were publicly telegraphing: give Trump his beloved wall, even though it was likely to be a $20 billion boondoggle that is not needed. Surely Washington has wasted more on less.

There were no signs that the proffer was a starting point. After all, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said the Democrats had made a similar offer on Friday to the President, only to have it rejected hours later.

The present stalemate speaks to the sharp divide between Republicans in the House and their more moderate colleagues in the Senate. There are a number of Senate Republicans who are more than amenable to expediting a DACA solution: Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose relatively liberal stance on immigration — and the jeers it prompted from Trump himself — cost him his chances of reelection.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who sported sneakers and an orange baseball cap as he shuttled between offices on the Hill on Sunday, has been a familiar punchline in the West Wing. Even though the President golfed with him last year, Graham’s laser focus on immigration has reminded many of the President’s truly conservative aides why they distrusted him. “There’s no daylight on immigration and open borders and amnesty between Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin and there hasn’t been for a long time,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said during an appearance on CNN on Friday, seeming to dismiss one of the Republican Party’s lead negotiators on the issue.

But lawmakers are hamstrung by the fact that the sort of bipartisan deal they could produce in the Senate would die swiftly in the House, where the Republican majority has effectively been boxed-in by a coalition of conservatives whose philosophy is one rooted in scorched earth. The face of this bloc is Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, who orchestrated the coup against House Speaker John Boehner in 2015 and has, according to rumors his fans are more than happy to spread, flirted with the idea of doing the same to Ryan.

The only immigration bill these conservatives have publicly considered entertaining is one crafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia — a hardline proposal that offers protection for DACA beneficiaries in exchange for a drastic curtailing of other immigration programs, like the diversity visa lottery and a hike in domestic enforcement. As written now, it was unlikely to pass the House, let alone the Senate, en route to the President’s desk.

“There’s clearly a force in the House that’s opposed to any immigration reform,” said Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat and the party’s lead negotiator in immigration talks, told reporters in the Capitol on Sunday. “They always point to Goodlatte, and his proposal is a far cry from what Lindsey and I are putting together.”

Meanwhile, conservatives at the White House and in Congress were ready with an accurate rejoinder: so far, the Durbin-Graham bloc had yet to introduce anything that would be considered legislation.

Meanwhile, Cotton, whose own hardline immigration plan won a presidential endorsement last year, was telling colleagues that he was not committed to backing any plan just because the President supported it. That threw a wrench in the Senate talks: if the most conservative player in these talks wasn’t going to follow the President’s lead, then who was actually in charge of the caucus?

Read More: Find Out If President Trump Would Let You Immigrate to America

That left McConnell and Ryan with power in name only. But, together, they formed something of a troika with the White House’s Kelly in trying to bring this standstill to an end, especially before voters started to realize their party controlled the House, the Senate and the White House and proved incapable of keeping the lights on. Several Hill aides scoffed that they’d ever be able to explain to voters the Senate rules requiring 60 votes — not the simple majority of 51 — to spend tax dollars. The goal for many of the Hill Republicans was simply to end this before it got messier.

The team at the White House was having its own issues on both message and policy. Comments by the President’s adult son, Eric Trump, that the shutdown might prove “a good thing for us” seemed tone-deaf to many aides. The Vice President, visiting U.S. troops near the Syrian border, used men and women in uniform as props to attack Democrats. The, the White House legislative affairs director opened the door to give Democrats even more than they were asking for, but only if the government got its money.

“Keep in mind that these are people age 16 to 36 with work permits,” legislative chief Marc Short said during a stop on ABC News. “Which means they do not have any criminal background, they’re here being productive to our country.”

It immediately drew head-scratching from hardliners who thought the White House had gone wobbly on this issue. Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe it was the dizzying pace with which chips came onto — and off — the negotiating table. Maybe it was the threat of a 1 a.m. vote, then kicked to 11 hours later. Combined, these factors left the power brokers in Washington a bit queasy that, come Monday morning, Americans would wake up to find their government, on its first full day of business for the week, was shuttered.

If things didn’t change dramatically, the shutdown could last a long while.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com