Republicans are ending the 115th Congress in an all-too-familiar spot: standing on the sidelines while President Trump picks a fight they wanted to avoid as he ignores what they consider major conservative accomplishments.
On back-to-back days last week, Trump hosted large bipartisan gatherings that were meant to be valedictory, year-end statements of success with an $867 billion farm bill and a sweeping overhaul of federal prison laws. For a Congress that struggled to find significant legislation with sweeping Democratic and Republican support, these bills provided a road map for how things might work in the next two years of divided government.
Instead, Trump used each ceremony as an opportunity to denounce Democrats for opposing his multibillion-dollar demands for U.S. taxpayer money to fund a southern border wall, launching Washington into its third partial shutdown this year.
“It’s possible that we’ll have a shutdown. I would say the chances are probably very good because I don’t think Democrats care so much about maybe this issue,” Trump said Dec. 21 at the signing ceremony for the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, personally negotiated with Democrats.
And this shutdown could last well into the new year as Trump digs in for a fight for a wall he repeatedly promised Mexico would finance. Republican lawmakers, unable to deliver the president’s top priority despite all-GOP control of government for two years, mostly hid from the spotlight.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) have not been seen in the Capitol since Saturday, the first day of the partial shutdown. Neither chamber is slated to hold a legislative session until after New Year’s Day, just as Democrats take over the House after a midterm thumping that gave them a net gain of 40 seats.
Neither GOP leader has tried to back up Trump with the sort of news conference or partisan vote that demonstrates commitment to the cause — which has been the usual course of action for the president’s Capitol Hill allies in the periodic shutdowns of the past 25 years.
Republicans have not even convened conference calls of the rank and file to map out strategy to defend Trump.
Trump’s only outspoken allies have been members of the House Freedom Caucus, the band of hard-line conservatives who encouraged him to fight for wall funding even if it meant furloughing 350,000 federal workers and closing down national museums in the days ahead.
Among Republicans, the Freedom Caucus as well as those members elected in the tea party class of 2010 have clamored for reining in government and used shutdowns to challenge the Obama administration, with little success.
Still, with no debate or votes in the House the past week, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has been the only member of that caucus around the Capitol making media appearances to defend Trump.
Perhaps the most missing in action has been Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the incoming House minority leader who is taking over for Ryan as he heads into retirement next week.
McCarthy’s last public comment came on Christmas in a taped video about the “spirit of love” around the holiday season, without mentioning the ongoing shutdown.
For their part, Democrats have also fled the Capitol. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have rejected each offer from the White House for border wall funding, saying they will happily wait until next week, when Democrats take control of the House and are expected to approve legislation to reopen the government on their terms and send the bills to the Senate.
“Schumer and Pelosi have been in constant and close contact and on the same page with regards to shutdown strategy,” Justin Goodman, Schumer’s spokesman, said Friday.
It’s an embarrassing end to a two-year run for McConnell and Ryan. For months they respectively called this the “most successful Congress” for Republicans and claimed it set “a record pace” for legislative production.
Democrats fiercely object to those assertions and note that the biggest GOP victories, a $1.5 trillion tax cut plan and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, passed on simple-majority votes with very little bipartisan support.
There were some other signs of progress, including a massive package to try to combat opioid addiction, and revamping laws overseeing aviation and waterways.
But almost none of these gains has held the attention of the person Republicans most rely on to convey their message nationwide: the president.
Time and again, Trump has paid lip service to these issues that Republicans consider wins and instead has focused on his demands for a border wall. Early this year, after the tax cuts took effect, GOP leaders winced as Trump focused on other issues and saw public approval for the legislation fade away.
By the fall, as Trump held rally after rally ahead of the midterm elections, GOP leaders pleaded with the president to focus his remarks on the falling unemployment rate and the sky-high stock market. Instead, Trump devoted the large majority of his speeches to a caravan of Central American migrants walking thousands of miles toward the California border, alleging without foundation that the group of mostly women and children were criminals.
Weeks later, after House Republicans were thrashed at the polls, Ryan mildly criticized Trump for failing to push the economic message and instead undercutting suburban Republicans with a message of fear over immigration.
“The immigration issue is more on the front of his mind. I think the caravan was, you know, on TV a lot,” Ryan said Nov. 30 at a Washington Post Live event. “My own view was I would rather talk about the economy and how successful it was.”
Now, with the financial markets falling toward their worst year in a decade, Republicans face a more difficult time selling the skeptical public on their proudest domestic policy accomplishment.
And in their last days of full Republican control of Congress, the shutdown blotted out attention from any other issue.
For years McConnell has enjoyed hosting a long year-end news conference at which he declares his biggest wins and lays out his goals for the year ahead.
Normally, that would have happened at the end of last week, after the Senate unanimously approved on Dec. 19 a short-term funding plan that would have kept the government fully open into early February.
That same day, Ryan gave a farewell address in the Library of Congress, believing that Trump agreed with the strategy to fund the government and fight for the wall next month, when he could try to blame Pelosi once she was in charge.
Instead, the next morning, Trump called Ryan and other Republicans to the White House. He rejected their plan and was ready to fight even if it meant a shutdown.
McConnell never held his valedictory news conference, and what was probably Ryan’s last moment on the House floor came Saturday evening when he gaveled the empty chamber shut, the last legislative session of 2018 going out with a whimper.
The day before, at the end of the signing ceremony for the criminal justice bill, Trump tried to stay on message by deflecting a reporter’s question about how long the shutdown would last.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “This is such an incredible moment, what we’ve just done — criminal justice reform — that I just don’t think it’s appropriate to be talking about anything else.”
After some applause, he gave up the discipline on the big GOP win.
“Thank you,” Trump said, “but in five minutes we’ll be talking about other things.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.