The Memo: GOP frets as Trump shutdown looms

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE is ratcheting up the threat of a partial government shutdown over the border wall — and he’s unnerving Republicans on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Trump reiterated that a wall was necessary on Twitter on Monday morning.

Senior adviser Stephen Miller said that the administration would “absolutely” countenance a shutdown “if it comes to it” during an appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

ADVERTISEMENT

That, in turn, followed Trump’s explosive remark that he would be “proud” to have a shutdown. He made the comment during a fractious Oval Office meeting with likely incoming Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Can progressives govern? Dems plan hearing on emergency declaration's impact on military MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDon’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win MORE (D-N.Y.) on Dec. 11.

At issue is Trump’s demand that $5 billion in funding be provided for building the southern border wall that was one of the signature promises of his 2016 campaign. Trump pledged that Mexico would pay for the wall during the campaign, but that has not happened.

Democrats are adamant that they will not accede to Trump’s request — and many Republicans worry that the opposition party has all the leverage as it prepares to take control of the House next month.

“There is no reason for the Democrats to blink,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who was communications director for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOn The Money: Dems set Tuesday vote on Trump's emergency declaration | Most Republicans expected to back Trump | Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown drama | Powell heading before Congress Brown, Rubio trade barbs over ‘dignity of work’ as Brown mulls presidential bid The Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump MORE (R-Fla.) during the 2016 presidential primaries. 

“If the government shuts down and people are upset, they’re going to blame Trump,” Conant added, “so the Democrats have little reason to compromise.”

Democrats barely suppressed their glee at Trump’s comments in last week’s meeting with Pelosi and Schumer. They believe he virtually guaranteed that the GOP would take the lion's share of public blame if a shutdown does take place after the current deadline of Dec. 21.

On Monday, Schumer sought to deepen the Republican fissures. 

“What’s the Republicans’ plan? They don’t have one, they don’t know what to do,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “In the scuttlebutt, where we talk to one another, Senate Republican leadership has no idea what President Trump wants. Neither does House Republican leadership.”

Few people outside the White House believe that the GOP has the leverage to win the fight. If Trump sticks to his guns, the partial shutdown will affect the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the State Department, among others.

During his “Face the Nation” appearance, Miller — one of the most hard-line of Trump's aides on illegal immigration — suggested that the White House would be prepared to show some degree of flexibility.

Asked by moderator Margaret Brennan whether there was “wiggle room on that $5 billion,” Miller replied, “I’m not going to negotiate the details on air with you right now.”

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySenate plots to avoid fall shutdown brawl How the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal MORE (R-Ala.) has previously claimed there are “a lot of possibilities” to avoid a shutdown, though he has seemed to largely focus on short-term agreements that might postpone a crunch on the border wall until January or beyond. 

Other Republicans have clearly signaled their lack of appetite for a shutdown and the public backlash they fear would come with it. 

“I’ve been through what now, five or six government shutdowns,” Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsPompeo says he's 'ruled out' 2020 Kansas Senate run GOP senators offer praise for Klobuchar: 'She’s the whole package' The Hill's Morning Report - House Dems prepare to swamp Trump with investigations MORE (R-Kan.) told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “I don’t know of any of them that achieved their purpose.”

Other Republicans sound similar themes, recalling everything from the shutdowns forced by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) during the Clinton presidency to the 2013 shutdown advocated by Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzInviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Trump endorses Cornyn for reelection as O'Rourke mulls challenge O’Rourke not ruling out being vice presidential candidate MORE (R-Texas), which tried and failed to force then-President Obama to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act.

Cruz’s gambit met with derision from some of his GOP colleagues, and similar strains of dissatisfaction can be heard now, as the Trump administration steams ahead.

“We keep having these debates over a shutdown, it seems, every year or two,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy. “There is a chunk of the party that says, ‘This time will be different’. And it never works.”

Judy added that any move toward a shutdown might have some appeal to the president’s base. But he said its negative ramifications would be far more severe.

“It will certainly, I think, motivate the hardcore, hardcore base — but that is not the sort of voters that Republicans are going to need to prevail in 2020 and beyond,” he said. 

“We are going to need the voters in the middle, as well as the more moderate voters in our own party, who first and foremost want the government to work.”

But those who favor a more hawkish approach on the immigration issue argue that Trump’s approach should not be so readily dismissed.  

“Nobody wants to see a partial shutdown at the Department of Homeland Security but it is worth remembering that it takes two to create an impasse,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors reduced levels of immigration. 

Mehlman argued that Democrats had in the past supported some form of border barrier — he cited the support of Schumer and others for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 — and that such physical obstacles were “useful tools.”

“It isn’t going to solve the problem all by itself but it is a very effective means of getting control of illegal immigration,” he said.

For the moment, the Beltway consensus is that some kind of last-minute compromise will be hashed out. But even most Republicans don’t hold out much hope that Trump and the White House can get the upper hand.

“It’s not obvious what their endgame strategy is,” said Conant. 

“There is no doubt that the president and Stephen Miller feel strongly about immigration and border security and want to have this fight. It’s not obvious how they win it.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.