(Jim Watson/AFP)
Opinion writer

President Trump would almost certainly not be able to continue shutting down the government over his megalomaniacal border wall obsession if it weren’t for Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader is refusing a Senate vote on the bills that House Democrats have passed funding the government — shielding Trump from possibly having to veto a bipartisan measure reopening it, which would be politically disastrous for him.

Now one Democrat is pushing a plan to force McConnell’s hand. It’s a good one.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) tweeted over the weekend that Senate Democrats should block any and all measures in the Senate that are unrelated to funding the government until the Senate votes on reopening it. Since then, several progressive groups and a handful of Democratic senators have endorsed the strategy.

In an interview with me, Van Hollen elaborated on the idea and shed some light on how it might gain continued momentum and, possibly, even become a party-wide strategy.

“The Senate should make its first order of business a vote on the House bills to reopen the government,” Van Hollen told me, in a reference to the package House Democrats passed last week to fund the government without Trump’s wall money attached.

“McConnell and Senate Republicans have to stop contracting out their votes to Donald Trump,” Van Hollen continued. “They have an important constitutional role, and we should not have business-as-usual in the Senate until we open the entire federal government.”

To do this, Van Hollen noted, Democrats should vote against proceeding to debate on any measures unrelated to funding the government, and they should coalesce behind the idea as a caucus-wide strategy.

“We should insist that our focus be on reopening the government,” Van Hollen said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are working without pay. Hundreds of thousands more are being furloughed. Lots of small businesses that contract with the federal government are hurting. And you’ve got all the services being denied to the American people. That will continue to grow.”

A complication of timing

The first vote on a matter unrelated to funding the government comes on Tuesday night. The complication is that there is no Democratic caucus meeting before that vote, and senators are currently scattered around the country. So there might not be time to gauge support in the caucus for the idea or whether it has enough to become a party-wide strategy.

But there is a caucus meeting on Wednesday, and even if the Tuesday measure proceeds, Democrats can adopt this strategy after the meeting. The Senate will consider a package of lands bills next week, and even though many Democrats support them, Democrats should vote against proceeding to debate on them to compel McConnell to vote on the House bills reopening the government, Van Hollen said.

Thus far, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have publicly backed the strategy, and so have Indivisible and MoveOn. The fact that senators are scattered, making it hard to gauge support, is also a reason it’s unclear where Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will come down on the idea.

Asked whether Schumer might get behind it, Van Hollen said: “There’s growing momentum in support of this effort.” Van Hollen added that there’s “consensus” among Senate Democrats that they “need to be focused on generating pressure to reopen the government.”

Trump digs in while pretending to be flexible

The new line from Trump’s minions is that Trump is signaling flexibility in the shutdown talks, by agreeing to a “steel fence” and not a “concrete wall.” But this isn’t real flexibility, because the White House is still insisting on something that hews to Trump’s vision of a massive, wasteful new barrier. The White House’s latest request calls for nearly all the $5 billion he has demanded to be spent on 234 miles of new barrier.

So that’s not a flexible stance at all, and Democrats have rejected this as well. But it is McConnell’s refusal to vote on the House Democratic bills — he won’t vote on anything Trump won’t sign — that is making it easier for Trump to dig in.

Yet if Democrats can unite behind a strategy of grinding other business to a halt, Van Hollen argues, it could make this tougher for McConnell. The key is to get other Republican senators to break. As it is, several GOP senators who are vulnerable in 2020 are cracking and calling for votes.

To be sure, this is a major long shot. Indeed, even if somehow the Senate did pass the House bills, Trump might veto them. But that would be a politically terrible position and would further weaken him. And at a minimum, Van Hollen’s strategy might draw more attention to the fact that McConnell is protecting vulnerable senators from having to choose between Trump and reopening the government, allowing them to claim they want the latter without their bluff being called by a vote.

“McConnell and Senate Republicans have the keys in their hands. Trump may veto what we do, but we have our own separate responsibility,” Van Hollen told me. “You’ve got a lot of Republican senators who are up in 2020 who say they want to get the government open. This would be their opportunity to show that.”

Trump has lost the argument over his wall

Trump has lost the national debate over the wall. He made it central to the midterms, leading his party to a historic wipeout. Only a small minority of Americans wants wall funding, and an even smaller minority supports shutting down the government over it. Trump’s immigration reforms — including his wall — got the fewest votes of any package in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Trump has not offered a remotely serious rationale for the wall. He continues to justify the need for it with endless lies, including a new series of absurdities and wild exaggerations about crime and the border.

Having been repudiated legislatively, politically and substantively, he’s now shutting down the government to get his way. He has even threatened to declare a national emergency to build it, which, coming after his use of the military as a border prop during the campaign, constitutes another act of serious official misconduct.

The profound absurdity and destructiveness of Trump’s ongoing posture absolutely justify an aggressive response by Democrats. Indeed, they necessitate an aggressive response, since doing everything possible to stop the proposal itself and break the Trumpian politics behind it — not to mention the Senate GOP’s hamstringing of its branch of government’s independence on Trump’s behalf — actually constitutes the responsible thing to do.

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Update: The AFL-CIO has just endorsed this new strategy. From AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka’s statement, emailed to me moments ago:

Ending the government shutdown and putting people back to work must be the highest and only priority of the U.S. Senate. The AFL-CIO calls on all senators to reject consideration of any bills or business unrelated to opening the government. Every day this senseless and manufactured crisis drags on, real families with very real bills are harmed and millions are denied the vital services we deserve. Politicians need to do their job and allow us to do ours.

Update II: A senior Democratic aide tells me that Schumer will vote against proceeding to debate on the first measure being considered on Tuesday (one that’s unrelated to funding the government), because “Senate Republicans should instead bring to the floor the House-passed bills to reopen the government.”

So it looks like this strategy may be coming together.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: White House’s own documents show there’s no negotiating with Trump

Jennifer Rubin: Does Mitch McConnell know he’s part of the first branch of government?

Jennifer Rubin: The GOP refuses to govern. So why not step aside?

Henry Olsen: Trump won’t lose in a long shutdown