Few people in Washington can believe we’re asking this question right now, less than two months before an election. But largely because of President Trump, it has to be asked: Is the government going to shut down this month?
Experts The Fix polled say that at least a partial government shutdown is anywhere from more than likely to not likely at all. Which is to say, it’s tough to predict.
That has little to do with Congress itself, which is remarkably unified in wanting to fund the government by the Sept. 30 fiscal deadline. But Trump has threatened at least seven times in the past six weeks to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t give him $5 billion to start building his border wall now. Republican leaders say they just can’t get that much approved through Congress right now and have urged him to wait until after the November election for Congress to have a fight over the border wall. They even just reached a deal to push the border wall funding debate until Dec. 7, a month after the midterms.
What Trump ends up doing will determine whether the government is going to shut down under Republicans' watch, weeks before Republicans try to hold onto their majorities in Congress. Here are three shutdown scenarios, at this point each as likely as the next:
Scenario 1: As the House slips from Republican control, Trump tries to rally his base — with a shutdown
It’s looking increasingly likely that Democrats will seize majority control of the House of Representatives in November. And it’s entirely possible Trump will be blamed within his own party for that. He’s consistently off message, he’s threatening a government shutdown with his party in power, and he’s historically unpopular in a way that history strongly suggests will drag down the rest of his party.
“It’s going to be the president’s fault, and I think he knows that he will be blamed if the House flips,” said Steve Bell, a Republican former Senate budget aide.
Bell predicts that Trump will do what he naturally does when backed against the wall: stir up controversy and rally his base. Shutting down the government to take a stand for one of his quintessential campaign promises fits that bill pretty well.
Plus, Trump could be calculating — perhaps correctly — that this spending battle could be one of his last chances to get money for his wall before he’s up for reelection in 2020. If Democrats win back one or both chambers of Congress, don’t expect them to give Trump any political wins.
That’s one reason Republicans in Congress decided to hold off appropriating funds to the agency that would build the border wall until December. But that doesn’t guarantee Trump won’t start a fight before the midterms anyway.
Scenario 2: Trump approves some government funding and vetoes others, leading to a partial shutdown
Both parties in Congress are doing their best to avoid a shutdown by sending Trump spending bills in individual packages.
The hope is that once he starts signing bills to keep the government open, he won’t reverse course. Congress is expected to send the first bill to his desk Thursday — funding care for veterans, mostly — and Trump is expected to sign it. As of Thursday, they are kicking must of the rest of government funding to December, but Trump still has to approve that short-term spending package.
Stan Collender, a nonpartisan budget expert, says it’s entirely possible that Trump will calculate that, having funded care for veterans, he could veto the rest with minimal political blowback. That would lead to a partial shutdown, unlike the shutdown that lasted over the weekend in January and affected nearly the entire government.
Trump has shown little regard for federal agencies; some would argue he routinely tries to undermine them with his conspiracy theories about a deep state. Collender asked: So why would they take precedence over his wall? Especially when Trump has explicitly said that a shutdown could be good politics for him.
“I still think there’s a 60 percent chance of at least a partial shutdown,” Collender said, giving the most bullish prediction of any expert to whom The Fix talked. “He could veto some government agencies for the hell of it.”
Scenario 3: Trump listens to Republican leaders and decides to keep the government open — for now
“I think the chances of a shutdown are very small,” said Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not in anyone’s political interest to have a shutdown this close to the midterms.”
Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, agrees: “It’s in enough people’s political interest to avoid them, so they usually will,” she said.
Republican congressional leaders' herculean task is to convey as much to Trump. And they definitely are trying. But every time they’ve met with him, Trump has backed off a little on his shutdown threats before the midterm elections — only to escalate them few days later.
Still, Republicans in Congress have one powerful weapon that they haven’t had in the past: unity. The vast majority of lawmakers don’t want to deal with a shutdown right now. They want to be home campaigning and talking about the issues they’ve framed their campaigns around. That’s why they have been able to get spending bills to Trump weeks before the deadline (as opposed to rushing one big bill to Trump hours before a deadline, which nearly backfired on them in spring). It’s the first time in about a decade that Congress has gotten so much work done before the deadline, Reynolds said.
So it’s Congress vs. Trump in this shutdown battle. And as you can see, it’s anyone’s guess what Trump will decide.
This post has been updated with the latest news.