It’s beginning to look a lot like a government shutdown

Looking at where things stand ahead of a midnight Friday deadline, all signs are pointing to a partial government shutdown.

Typically, when trying to assess outcomes of Congressional standoffs, it’s best to look past some of the details and consider the bottom line political motivations and incentives for the key players.

Right now, we’re in a situation in which the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill to temporarily keep government open through Feb. 8, but President Trump has signaled to House Republicans that he would veto it because it does not include funding for a border wall. Right now, House Republicans are scrambling to pass something, but anything they pass with border wall funding will be dead in the water in the Senate.

At the current time, however, no key constituency has any reason to compromise.

President Trump

The defining promise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was to build a border wall. As long as a wall is getting built, he can probably get away with not having Mexico pay for it. But should he fail to deliver it in any form, it will significantly undermine his re-election campaign, becoming a symbol of the gap between his sweeping promises and reality. When it was reported that he was prepared to relent on wall funding, there was a strong backlash among many conservatives, inside and outside Congress, who were among his most dedicated supporters. He may have to end up caving either way, but if he shuts down government over the issue, he could at least argue that he fought hard for the wall. If he just signs on to yet another continuing resolution without going through a shutdown, it will look like an absolute surrender. So, he has every reason to make a stand here.

Congressional Democrats

To avert a shutdown, Republicans need 60 votes in the Senate, meaning they can’t do anything without some support from Democrats — and they could also require Democratic votes in the House to offset any large GOP defections. Democrats would be eviscerated by their base if, coming off of large gains in an election, they were to deliver Trump a major victory by giving him his coveted wall. They have not given Trump his wall funding in the past two years, and they are even less likely to now knowing two things: One, if they hold out, they will have more power come Jan. 3, when the new Democratic House majority is sworn in, with Nancy Pelosi as the leader. Two, Trump has already declared that he’s prepared to shut down the government over border security, ensuring that Republicans will get the blame.

House Republicans

If Trump is ready to hold out for a wall, there’s no reason why conservative House Republicans would want to vote for legislation without a wall when their party still controls the House. They, too, want to show the base that they were willing to go all out for wall funding. Once the new Congress takes over, if the Democratic-controlled House cuts a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump that does not include wall funding, then House conservatives won’t have any fingerprints on it. They can vote against that continuing resolution and say they held their ground and point fingers at Pelosi and McConnell.

The low stakes of the “shutdown”

As government shutdowns go, the current one would be relatively uneventful. Congress has already passed spending bills to fund about three-quarters of the government, and with the Christmas and New Year’s holiday week coming up, there isn’t going to be much work getting done anyway. So, for all the likely messaging about the lumps of coal lawmakers are putting in people’s Christmas stockings, any partial shutdown is going to have a very small effect on most people’s lives.

For all of these reasons, I am expecting a shutdown.

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