The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump raises prospect of government shutdown to leverage better budget for GOP in fall

Would President Trump and Senate Republicans really kill the filibuster? Here's why they might (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump on Tuesday called for a government shutdown later this year and suggested the Senate might need to prohibit future filibusters, dramatic declarations from a new commander in chief whose frustration is snowballing as Congress continues to block key parts of his agenda.

“Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” Trump wrote in a series of tweets Tuesday morning. He likely meant a shutdown in October, as the current spending bill lawmakers have agreed to would fund government operations through Sept. 30.

Trump’s call for a shutdown, which appears to be unprecedented from a sitting president, comes as his problems are mounting within the House and Senate, chambers that are both controlled by his party.

House Republicans are still split on whether to approve a bill he supports to roll back the Affordable Care Act, and Trump had to agree to major concessions on a stopgap spending bill in order for it to win support in the Senate, which typically requires 60 votes to pass legislation. Republicans only control 52 votes in the 100-seat chamber.

That made it easier for Democrats to block any funding for the creation of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, which had been a top priority for Trump. They were also able to continue funding programs that Trump has sought to cut off or scale back, such as Planned Parenthood and the National Institutes of Health.

“The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

He continued that Republicans needed to “either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%,” referring to the idea that they should only need 51 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, instead of 60.

Senate rules require 60 lawmakers to agree before most bills can move to a final vote.

Congress is supposed to approve “appropriations” bills for different agencies and programs, voting to authorize annual spending bills. It requires both parties to agree on spending levels for different programs, a difficult but crucial task. This process has broken down in recent years, and lawmakers instead have mostly passed short-term spending bills that must be continually renewed.

One reason for this is that many Republicans want a sharp increase in defense spending and major cuts to other agencies, while Democrats have insisted that increases in defense spending must be matched by increases in spending for other agencies.

White House officials debated whether to take a stand on the current spending bill and demand money for the construction of the border wall. But they decided instead to pull back and cut a deal with Democrats to prevent a shutdown this spring.

During a White House event later Tuesday, Trump called the spending deal “a clear win for the American people,” citing “historic” investments in border security and $21 billion to “rebuild the military.”

President Trump insisted that the bipartisan spending deal will include money to go toward building a border wall. "This is what winning looks like," he said. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This is what winning looks like,” Trump said at a U.S. Air Force Academy Commander-in-Chief trophy presentation.

The White House’s goal now is to take a stand during the next spending package, which would fund the government beginning in October.

The White House has already released some details of its priorities for that roughly $4 trillion budget, and it will release more information about its proposal in mid-May.

So far, the White House has called for increasing defense spending by $54 billion and cutting an equal amount from 18 agencies, eliminating numerous government functions and cutting thousands of federal workers.

Still, some of Trump’s top advisers are incensed at what they perceive as gloating from Democrats over the way the short-term spending discussions played out.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Tuesday that Trump’s call for a shutdown later this year is a “defensible position, one that we will deal with in September.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney defended President Trump's shutdown threats on May 2. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Mark Wilson/Reuters)

He also said Democrats have wildly mischaracterized the spending package as a win for their party and a capitulation by the White House, something Mulvaney said is false.

“The American people won, and the president negotiated that victory for them,” Mulvaney said on the call. He said some Democrats are “scared to death” of what would happen if Americans found out what was in the spending bill, and he proceeded to list different parts of the package that he said were major victories for the White House.

Principal among those victories, Mulvaney said, is the roughly $21 billion in new money for military spending that lawmakers have agreed to. He said that increasing defense spending by this much while only boosting nondefense spending by roughly $4.5 billion breaks a multiyear demand from Democrats that there be parity between defense and nondefense budgets.

“We broke it in such a way that it almost defies logic that the Democrats would allow us to have such a huge win,” Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney, addressing reporters on Tuesday, said a “good ‘shutdown” later in the year wasn’t “desirable” but that it might be necessary.

“A ‘good’ one would be something that fixes Washington, D.C., permanently,” he said.

Mulvaney’s characterization of the spending bill, though, was much rosier than Trump’s. Judd Gregg, the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he understood Trump’s “frustration,” but he said the White House will have to learn how to work with the Senate to promote its agenda. And he said Republicans will take all the blame for a shutdown later this year because they control the House, the Senate and the White House.

“I get the sense they are beginning to realize this isn’t like building a building or opening a golf course,” Gregg said of the White House. “This is high politics, not high-rise buildings, and the process is entirely different. The motivation is entirely different.”

Trump’s new demands, calling for a shutdown later this year and a possible end of the Senate filibuster, could further complicate any prospect of working with Democrats on future legislation.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump tweeting about a “shutdown,” arguing that the spending bill was the result of bipartisan negotiations.

“It is truly a shame that the president is degrading it because he didn't get 100 percent of what he wanted,” Schumer said. He went on to quote a Rolling Stones song to make his point, adding, “You can't always get what you want.”

Democrats largely panned Trump’s proposal last week to rework the tax code, and talks have gone nowhere on how to launch a $1 trillion infrastructure program that was a keystone of his campaign. And lawmakers still don’t have a plan for how they will raise or suspend the debt ceiling later this year. A failure to do so could rock financial markets and call into question the U.S. government’s ability to pay its bills.

But Steve Bell, a former top Republican aide on the Senate Budget Committee, said Trump’s call for a partial government shutdown later this year could be warranted. He said the current budget process in Congress is completely broken, with lawmakers routinely passing temporary spending measures that don’t allow for long-term planning.

“I think we might need a partial government shutdown,” Bell said. “I don’t know anything other than a really dramatic statement that could fix this.”

Trump could easily cause a partial government shutdown by refusing to sign a spending bill. The last government shutdown lasted more than two weeks in 2013. During that shutdown, the Obama administration said that at one point 850,000 federal employees were placed on “furlough,” or leave without pay. In total, the furloughs accounted for 6.6 million days of lost work. The lost productivity cost the government $2 billion.

Diplomatic meetings were canceled, and U.S. officials largely stopped traveling to conferences and events around the country. The processing of tax returns slowed, and many agencies begin operating with much smaller staffs.

Many government functions, such as law enforcement and national security, continued, but national parks closed and economists believe there was a sizable impact on the economy, particularly in the Washington area.

Once government shutdowns end, the federal employees are typically repaid for the time they were on furlough.

In order to permanently end the Senate filibuster, Trump would need the agreement of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), who has said in the past he would not support this. It’s a position that most sitting senators share. On April 7, 61 senators, including a number of Republicans, signed a letter to Senate leaders saying they opposed the elimination of the 60-vote threshold.

McConnell has already changed the Senate rules this year, however. To secure the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch, Republican leaders changed the rules on Supreme Court nominees to require only 51 votes — a simple majority.

Democrats on Capitol Hill pounced on Trump's tweets, calling them irresponsible.

In a statement, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said that the 2013 government shutdown was “a devastating blow to economic growth, amounting to an estimated $1.5 billion lost for each of the 16 days of the shutdown.”

“I hope the president does not seriously wish to have the consequences of a government shutdown resting squarely on his shoulders,” Leahy said.

Meanwhile, when asked Tuesday morning about Trump’s tweets, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) began with a shrug and a smile: “How many times have I had this, ‘Do you agree with the tweet this morning?’”

“Look, we’ve got a long ways to go between now and September, but I share the president’s frustration,” Ryan said. “What a lot of people in America don’t realize is appropriations bills, they take 60 votes to pass. They can be filibustered. So, all appropriations bills therefore have to be bipartisan because Democrats can always filibuster an appropriations bill. Having said all that, I feel very good about the wins that we got with the administration in this bill.”

Sean Sullivan and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.