Trump shock leaves Republicans anxious over 2019

Republican lawmakers are struggling to coordinate their message with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE heading into a divided Congress after he pulled the rug out from them once again by declaring he would be “proud” to shut down the government.

Trump shocked Republicans, who were preparing to blame Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis Schumer4 in 5 Americans say they support net neutrality: poll GOP senator: Trump's criticism of McCain 'deplorable' Schumer to introduce bill naming Senate office building after McCain amid Trump uproar MORE (D-N.Y.) for a potential partial shutdown, when he said he would take sole responsibility for shuttering federal agencies if Congress doesn’t meet his demand for $5 billion in wall funding.

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The televised performance left GOP senators perplexed — and worried about what’s in store for them over the next two years — as they try to work with Trump and against resurgent House Democrats led by Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change 2020 Dems avoid this year's AIPAC conference MORE (D-Calif.), who’s poised to be the next Speaker.

Pelosi, by contrast, received praise from fellow Democrats for her handling of the Oval Office meeting with Trump and Schumer on Tuesday.

Republican leaders had planned to force concessions from Schumer and Pelosi by making sure they would get a hefty share of the blame for any shutdown.

GOP leaders were planning to roll out talking points blaming Democrats for a “Schumer Shutdown 2.0,” a reference to the Democrats’ short-lived  closure of the government over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

That messaging plan was thrown out the window after Trump’s raucous exchange with Democratic leaders at the White House on Tuesday.

“We had to pivot from a messaging standpoint,” said a Senate GOP leadership source. “It presented some unique challenges.”

Trump’s theatrics left GOP lawmakers dumbfounded, and they pressed Vice President Pence at a Tuesday lunch for an explanation of Trump’s off-script swerve.

But Pence could only tell GOP lawmakers that “it was an interesting conversation,” according to senators in the room.

When asked what the president’s game plan was to get out of what many GOP lawmakers see as a blind alley, Pence told senators that a solution has yet to emerge.

It’s been conventional wisdom in Washington since the shutdown battles of the mid-1990s that the party seen at fault suffers the most political damage.

“It doesn’t help with the messaging because we’ve spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how not to get labeled with the blame for a shutdown,” said one Republican senator.

But the lawmaker noted that Trump “is of the strong view that this border issue is one that people are concerned about to the point that he’s willing to take full credit for whatever fight he has to have to get where he wants to get.”

Trump also appeared out of step with GOP leaders in Congress by proclaiming confidently that the House would be able to pass a year-end spending package that includes $5 billion for a border wall.

“We would get it passed very easily in the House,” he said. “I’d have it passed in two seconds.”

House Republicans struggled on Wednesday to come up with a strategy to fulfill Trump’s demand. GOP leaders had not decided how they would fund the wall or whether to even schedule a vote on the matter this week.

Trump said during Tuesday’s meeting that the only reason he couldn’t get a government funding bill passed was because he needs at least nine Democratic votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

That means the president’s ability to blame Schumer and Senate Democrats for blocking the bill rests on first getting a funding measure through the House — something that is far from a slam dunk.

Senate Republicans said coordination with the White House will be especially important in the 116th Congress because Trump will be at the top of the ballot in 2020, when the GOP will have to defend 22 seats in the upper chamber — more than twice as many as in 2018.

“The backlash against Trump could be even bigger with him on the ballot, even though it was big in this last election,” said a second GOP senator, who pointed to the Democrats’ dominance in suburban areas in last month’s midterm elections.

Senate Republicans wanted to keep the midterm message focused on the economy and felt they were in a great position after the Labor Department reported the Friday before Election Day that U.S. employers added 250,000 jobs in October.

Instead, Trump focused on illegal immigration, border security and a caravan of Central American migrants making their way toward the U.S.-Mexico border. The strategy played well in several states that Trump won by double digits in 2016, such as Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, but it also helped power a Democratic wave in House suburban districts.

Trump has veered off message at other key moments in recent months in the 115th Congress, such as when he called a health-care-reform bill passed by the House “mean.”

Other prominent examples include when he said he fired former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game Comey: I'm not rooting for Mueller to demonstrate Trump is a criminal Trump's attacks on McCain exacerbate tensions with Senate GOP MORE because of “this Russia thing” and when he doubled down on the term “travel ban,” tweeting that it was for people from “certain DANGEROUS countries,” despite GOP efforts to give it a more positive gloss.

Republicans recognize that control of the House will give Democrats a louder megaphone in 2019 than they had during the first two years of Trump’s presidency, when Democrats were shut out of power.

Pelosi and House Democrats have often been treated as an afterthought since the 2016 elections, but now they will be in position to set the agenda on spending and tax bills, which must originate in the House.

Democrats in the House will also put pressure on Senate Republicans to defend the president as they ramp up investigations into his administration’s policies and his inner circle.

Trump said at a press conference after Election Day that he would use GOP control of the Senate to fight back against House Democrats, an approach that will require better coordination.

The president said Senate Republicans could investigate “a lot of very questionable things” he alleged were done by Democrats, such as leaks of classified information.

Trump’s declaration on Tuesday that he would take “the mantle” for a shutdown and not blame Democrats left Senate Republicans scrambling to pick up the pieces on Wednesday.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstCrenshaw to Trump: 'Stop talking about McCain' Stop asking parents to sacrifice Social Security benefits for paid family leave Senate votes to confirm Neomi Rao to appeals court MORE (R-Iowa), a top campaign target for Democrats in 2020, said she hopes a shutdown can nevertheless be avoided.

“I am still hopeful that we can come to some sort of agreement. I would much rather see us work through this, get funding for the border security and move ahead,” she said.

Despite Trump’s comments the day before, Ernst argued that Democrats would still bear some responsibility for a shutdown.

“It’s Congress. If the Democrats are saying, ‘We’re not going to give [money for the border wall],’ I would place the blame on them,” she said. “We as Congress need to fund border security. The president has been clear for two years that he wants border funding.”