Shortly after Republicans urged President Trump into a standoff over border wall funding, they took Democrats by surprise by explaining how Nancy Pelosi, likely to become the speaker of the House on Jan. 3, could defeat the president: Wait him out.
“Our options are very slim once she takes over,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said in a Saturday interview with Fox News.
Neither party seems to feel any urgency to end the latest shutdown, with both feeling they have something to gain while banking on the theory that even if they lose this political fight, voters don’t seem to have long memories when it comes to shutdown fights.
With the Senate not expected to return until after Christmas, the GOP’s immigration hard-liners are hoping the public will move their way on an issue — the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — that motivates the party base but few others. They also view the fight as a chance to send an early message to Democrats before they take control of the House.
“I think Democrats hate Trump so much they want him to lose,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a Friday interview on Fox News, the network watched most closely by the president. “If he doesn’t break them now, it’s going to be a terrible 2019.”
In interviews across conservative media, Republicans have speculated that Pelosi would not want to begin her term with a fight over the border wall. Democrats, including Pelosi, have long said their first piece of legislation should be a voting rights and election reform package, and a 12-day shutdown battle would complicate matters.
But Pelosi herself has welcomed a fight over government funding. In a Saturday letter to incoming members of her caucus, she wrote that if there is no funding deal by Jan. 3, “the new House Democratic Majority will swiftly pass legislation to reopen government.”
Incoming Democrats, even from more moderate areas, said they are receiving mostly positive messages from constituents about how the party is handling the shutdown fight.
“I’ve gotten so many texts and comments from folks about how proud they are that Democrats are standing strong,” said Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat who will represent Texas’s 16th Congressional District next year. “They’d be outraged if we backtracked. [In January] most Americans would think: Oh, thank goodness, the Democrats arrived to reopen the government.”
The president and many Republicans say Democrats are misreading the dynamics of a new, divided government. Pelosi, who is viewed negatively by most independent voters and by virtually all Republicans, is seen by the White House as an ideal foil for Trump. House Republicans have said their base is energized when it sees them battling Democrats for the wall and depressed when there’s any hint of concession.
“They don’t want us to quit fighting,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said in an interview last week.
The latest polling on the wall has continued to find most voters opposed to it, even if they support the general concept of increased border security. In October, a CBS poll found 60 percent of voters weighing in against a wall; in December, polls from CNN and Quinnipiac clocked the opposition at 57 and 54 percent.
That’s considerably weaker support than Republicans and Democrats found for other issues that became grist for shutdowns. In September 2013, the month before Republicans attempted to cut off funding for the Affordable Care Act through a shutdown, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 52 percent of voters opposed the law. In September 2017, the same poll found 86 percent of Americans in favor of letting immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children get legal status, an issue that animated a brief January 2018 shutdown.
Both shutdowns ended with the party perceived to be seeking the shutdown getting none of what it wanted. Democrats remain convinced that the president is seen as the force behind the current impasse, pointing to polls and to coverage of a Dec. 11 meeting at the White House, when the president told Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) that he would “be the one to shut it down” to get wall funding.
“No one is calling this the Schumer shutdown,” said one Democratic aide, who pointed out that Fox News, at that moment, was playing video of the Dec. 11 meeting. Republicans have struggled to explain why Democrats, and not the president, are to blame. In a Saturday appearance on Fox News, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) suggested that Trump would be at fault only if he vetoed “clean [continuing resolutions] out of both Houses,” which are exactly what Democrats say they can pass in January.
Republicans have also lost some of their leverage in the Senate. In this year’s midterm elections, 10 incumbent Democrats faced voters in states that the president had carried in 2016; four of them lost, while the other six will not face voters again for six long years. In 2020, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is the only Democrat seeking reelection in a Trump state, while two Republicans — Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — will face voters in states lost by Trump in 2016 and won decisively by Democrats in the midterms.
Even as they’ve argued that the president can win a shutdown, some Republicans have acknowledged that the political impact of a shutdown does not last like it used to. Thirteen months after the 2013 shutdown battle, Republicans recovered in polls and decisively won the Senate. In 2018, despite their Senate gains, Republicans did not see the January shutdown resonate with voters.
“I don’t know that Sen. Schumer was punished at the ballot box for shutting the government down the last time,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who personally lobbied Trump to demand the border wall money even if it meant a shutdown. “Everybody knows [Schumer] was blamed; polls suggest he was blamed, and I don’t think he was punished in 2018.”
Mike DeBonis and Scott Clement contributed to this report.