The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here are all the ways the government shutdown could end

The Fix's Colby Itkowitz analyzes why President Trump was ready to cave on border wall funding to keep the government open until conservatives called him out. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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(An earlier version of this story posted Jan. 4, 14 days into the shutdown.)

The partial government shutdown is now in its second month, federal workers are about to miss their second paychecks, and Congress’s only plan seems to be taking partisan show votes with no hope of passing legislation.

Here’s where things stand: On Saturday, President Trump announced in a televised address that he would provide three-year protections for “dreamers” and those with temporary permanent status in exchange for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But his plan to reopen the government also includes more-stringent rules for asylum seekers, which Democrats called a non-starter.

Democrats are still trying to persuade Trump to open the government on a short-term basis to get people back to work and use that time to negotiate a border security deal. Democrats are willing to allocate money for border security enhancements but not new structural barriers.

In early January, Trump told congressional leaders in a meeting that the shutdown could go on for “months or even years.” At the time, it seemed like an empty threat. Now it looks like a possibility.

It’s hard to imagine how this will be resolved. So let’s run through the various scenarios:

1. Trump declares a national emergency

After floating this option, Trump has said he has no plans to go this route, and most congressional Republicans have said it’s not a good strategy. But if a legislative fix really can’t be found, this could be a way out for all sides. In this scenario, Trump declares border security a national emergency, which he would argue allows him to reallocate money to build a wall. It would be challenged in the courts, and while it bounced around the legal system, the government would reopen with both sides being able to claim victory for not caving.

2. Trump simply caves

The longer the shutdown goes on, the worse the ripple effect on the economy and for average Americans. If political pressure mounts, congressional Republicans could lean on Trump to reopen the government without border wall funding. In this scenario, he’d probably fight for an assurance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the Senate GOP would prioritize border security in the immediate aftermath. Then, if the Senate reached a compromise on border wall funding and a permanent fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, it’s conceivable that Pelosi might feel an incentive to push something through the House. If Trump thought this was possible, he could cave and sign a clean bill to reopen the government. But the president has rejected similar suggestions from Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).

3. Congress overrides Trump’s veto

Another possibility: Senate Republicans actually endorse one of the clean funding bills the House has already passed. It’s unlikely that one of these could get the 60 votes needed to move forward with a final vote, but even if it did, Trump has said he would veto it. But Congress could override that if the bills pass both chambers with two-thirds support. It would be a stretch in the Senate, where 19 Republicans would have to vote with the entire Democratic caucus. McConnell is unlikely to bring up a bill that doesn’t have majority GOP backing. But enough Republicans are up for reelection in 2020 in swing-ish states that it could be done, especially because the Senate unanimously passed a clean funding bill before the shutdown.

4. A concession from both sides

In the very recent past, Democrats offered Trump some options. In December, they were prepared to give him $2.1 billion for border security, but Trump said he would accept nothing less than $5 billion (now $5.7 billion). After that, Democrats officially gained control of the House and dug in, saying they won’t give any money for a wall. Now they’re talking about approving Trump’s dollar amount for other border security enhancements but stipulating that it can’t be used for any kind of physical barrier. But again, Trump has made clear that no wall money means no government reopening.

5. A big bargain

The Democrats could revive their deal from last year that would have exchanged $25 billion toward a border wall for a path to citizenship for dreamers. Trump initially signaled interest but was talked out of it by the hard-line anti-immigration people around him. That deal is probably looking pretty good right about now to Trump. It could also appeal to Democrats, who have made protecting dreamers a priority, but committing $25 billion is a huge leap from the $5.7 billion they are refusing now.

6. It doesn’t end

In this most unlikely of scenarios, neither side folds, and the agencies remain shut down through the end of 2020, when there’s a presidential election. If a Democrat wins, he or she could reopen the government. If Trump wins, he wouldn’t need to placate his base anymore and might give up on his fight.

But if this actually happened — if parts of the government remained closed until January 2021 — that would mean more than 800,000 federal employees plus thousands of government contractors would go for two years without pay for their work or without work, full stop. That’s the IRS, the TSA, the Border Patrol (yes, the same ones responsible for the border Trump says is in crisis) and so many other agencies crucial to Americans. Despite Trump’s threat of a years-long shutdown, there’s no way Congress lets that happen.