The opening days of the year have provided a template for what is to come in 2019. President Trump’s demand for $5 billion in funding for a border wall, the Democrats’ resistance to that proposal and the ensuing government shutdown foreshadow a year of intense conflict and efforts to raise each side’s pain level.
The current shutdown has entered the record books as the longest in history, an inauspicious way to start the second half of the president’s first term. It is hardly surprising, however, given the preceding two years and the results of the midterm elections.
In the days after the November elections, Trump claimed the midterms were close to a complete victory for Republicans. The biggest new class of House Democrats since Watergate was just sworn in. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), accepting the gavel on the opening day of Congress, said the House would be bipartisan and unifying. The shutdown battle has been neither.
The president did a mild retreat on Friday from earlier statements suggesting that he was moving quickly and eagerly to declare a national emergency to force construction of the wall. He would face legal and political problems were he to pursue that path. The shift in tone brought no other sign that the shutdown will soon end. He was left to using Saturday morning tweets to try to fill the void.
Entering its fourth week, the shutdown has lasted longer than the stalemate in 1995-96 that pitted President Bill Clinton against House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). That fight ultimately helped to revive Clinton’s political standing after the battering that he and congressional Democrats had taken in the 1994 midterm elections. It also gave him a head start toward his successful 1996 reelection, with Gingrich as his foil.
In the aftermath of that shutdown battle, the two sides found ways to work productively. In 1996, Clinton signed a welfare-reform bill that he had earlier vetoed (which was also good for Gingrich but a blow to Clinton’s 1996 challenger, former senator Bob Dole). A year later their negotiations led to a balanced-budget agreement.
This is a different era with different players. The casting of a president of one party against a House speaker of another provides some sense of parallelism, but Pelosi is not Gingrich and Trump is not Clinton. It’s difficult at this moment to see how this shutdown could lead to any kind of productive work.
One hope is that this could eventually lead to renewed negotiations over a bigger immigration agreement.
Previous efforts in past administrations, whether under the presidency of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, were blocked by conservative resistance. Those past efforts envisioned legal status or the path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. During Trump’s presidency, such talks have focused only on the so-called dreamers, young people who were brought to this country when they were children.
Trump and Democrats discussed a deal that would have given dreamers a path to citizenship in return for $25 billion in funding for a border wall. But those discussions included proposals by the president for reductions in legal immigration that are non-starters for Democrats. Those talks broke down in typical fashion, with rancorous accusations on both sides and a belief among Democrats that Trump preferred the political issue over a resolution, or that White House hard-liners would never let him agree to terms with the Democrats.
More recently, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) floated the idea of a deal that would include wall funding along with time-limited work permits for dreamers and protections for those with temporary protected status. That scaled-back idea seemed to sink quickly amid the rancor over the shutdown. Immigration still remains an insoluble issue and the rhetoric around the wall makes compromise all the more difficult.
Successful negotiations on an immigration reform package seem far from plausible given the two sides’ feelings.
In reality, this shutdown drama might prove to be just the introduction for events to come as Democrats begin to make good on their pledge to conduct multiple oversight investigations into the Trump administration and the president.
That will begin on Feb. 7, when Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and will be heading to prison in the spring, will testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
The president told reporters on Thursday that he’s not worried about what Cohen might say, but that probably was a disingenuous comment. Cohen already has said that, at the direction of then-candidate Trump, he carried out a scheme to pay hush money to women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
Cohen’s testimony will be a spectacle at the least. It will also give the president a taste of things to come: Contentious, partisan events that will dominate the news and likely prompt the president to look for ways to create diversions. It could be a dangerous time.
Cohen will testify before Congress with the approval of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which means he might be limited as to what he can discuss. But the fact of his testimony coming so soon also might suggest that Mueller is nearing the end of his investigation and will deliver his report in the near future.
The shutdown standoff also is a prelude to what is likely to be many clashes between the White House and congressional Democrats over access to documents and information, with expected claims of executive privilege. Another confrontation looms over the fate of the Mueller report: Will it be released in full to Congress and the public or partially released with heavy redactions? Will the administration seek to withhold it in its entirety? Anything short of a full release will produce fireworks and a legal battle royal. The threat of impeachment proceedings will hang over everything.
The shutdown is testing the resolve of Democrats and the president. So far, neither has been willing to show weakness or a desire to compromise. This is Pelosi’s first major test as reelected speaker, and she has met, in Trump, an unpredictable and volatile adversary. Ultimately, however, the coming year will provide an even more exacting test for Republicans, especially those in the Senate.
During the shutdown, the president has been effective in holding elected Republicans together, despite some cracks in the facade. The president’s standing among rank-and-file Republicans helps to keep GOP elected officials in line, as does their distaste for the negotiating tactics of Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was embarrassed politically when the president turned against the GOP compromise offered before the shutdown began. He has been mostly silent and mostly out of sight since. Given everything that is coming, this could become his most challenging year as leader. The same holds for other Republican senators who have no particular love for the way Trump has conducted himself.
However long the shutdown lasts, and however it is resolved, no one should expect a real change in the political atmosphere in Washington. Given the toxic politics of these times, things could actually spiral downward after this low start to the year.