GOP leader faces Trump test in latest shutdown crisis

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Biden not ruling out Senate voting to impeach Trump: 'It will depend on what their constituency says' Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate MORE (R-Ky.) is treading carefully with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE on the year-end spending fight.

McConnell has made it clear that he wants to avoid a government shutdown, for which Republicans would get most of the blame.

“The leader has expressed his views on a partial shutdown several times publicly,” a McConnell aide told The Hill.

But he’s letting Trump, who has threatened to veto a spending bill that fails to fund his border wall, take the lead. 

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“It’s the president's battle, so I think he’s going to set the terms,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynFalling investment revives attacks against Trump's tax cuts GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says Dems shouldn't hold public hearings MORE (Texas), McConnell’s top deputy in leadership. 

Most Senate Republican lawmakers see a shutdown as a mistake heading into the difficult 2020 cycle, when they will have to defend 22 seats during a presidential election — when Democratic turnout is typically higher. 

McConnell, who is himself up for reelection and could face a tough race, has been in close contact with Trump, offering advice on various options.

“I think what McConnell will do is what he always does and that’s give the president his best advice on what is and is not possible, what is a realistic view of where things stand,” said Scott Jennings, a McConnell adviser. “Then the president can take that information and advice and make decisions about his public posture.”

McConnell is in a difficult spot. He can’t publicly take on Trump and risk having the president not back him in 2020, say political observers in Kentucky.

“He can’t afford to have Trump undercutting him. He can’t afford to have a primary challenger, so he’s closer to Trump than ever and I don’t think he wants to do anything to create a breach there,” said Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics. 

“If I know McConnell, he’s talking to Trump all the time. I think McConnell has a better gauge on Donald Trump’s mind and sensibilities and strategies and tactics than just about anybody because he’s a really good student of people in public life who have power,” he added. 

McConnell has repeatedly stepped up in key moments to help his party avoid calamities. In August 2011, he brokered a compromise to raise the federal debt ceiling. In December of 2012, he negotiated with then-Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment Biden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running MORE to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

He’s not making bold declarations, as he did a year ago when he proclaimed, incorrectly as it turned out, that “there’s not going to be a government shutdown. It’s just not going to happen.” 

“I don’t think we’ll get to that point,” he told The Wall Street Journal CEO Council earlier this month.

McConnell is telling Senate colleagues that he has no interest in shuttering government agencies.

He told reporters on Tuesday that a shutdown would “not be a great way to end what in my view has been the most successful Congress, right of center, in decades.” 

Trump, by contrast, declared in front of television cameras Tuesday that “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down” and even told Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerIlhan Omar blasts Pete King as an 'Islamophobe' after he announces retirement: 'Good riddance' Top Senate Dem: Officials timed immigration policy around 2020 election Senate fight derails bipartisan drug pricing bills MORE (N.Y.), “I’m not going to blame you for it.”

That statement flew in the face of the Senate GOP leadership’s strategy to blame the shutdown on Schumer and the Democrats. 

Still, McConnell’s priority is to maintain unity with Trump.  

“It makes absolutely no sense to negotiate against yourself,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “This is not a complicated issue.”

“The battle lines are really clear, it’s one issue they’re discussing,” he said of the standoff between Trump and the Democrats on the border wall. “It just makes no sense for other people to jump into the middle of this and complicate it further."

“Schumer would love nothing more than to try and drag other Republicans in and wedge the president against his stated position,” he added. “McConnell is too sophisticated of an operator to allow that to happen.”

Holmes acknowledged that Trump’s support will be important to McConnell’s reelection — and vice versa. 

“Both political futures are dependent on each other’s success,” he said. “The most notable successes we’ve had over the last two years have been when the two of them are driving the train together,” citing two Supreme Court confirmations and tax reform.

Schumer on Thursday laid out the Democratic playbook over the next two weeks. 

He said Democrats are willing to let funding for federal agencies expire on Friday and simply wait until House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate Siren song of impeachment lures Democrats toward election doom MORE (D-Calif.) becomes Speaker next month. 

At that point, the Democratic House will pass either a yearlong stopgap for the Department of Homeland Security or a yearlong stopgap for all seven unfinished appropriations and send it to the GOP-controlled Senate to deal with. 

That would dump the shutdown fight squarely into McConnell’s lap, which he wants to avoid. 

McConnell’s task now is to help Trump find a face-saving way to avoid that scenario. 

He will need to convince the president that it’s smarter to deal with the spending impasse now instead of in January, when Democrats will have move leverage after taking control of the House. 

“The strategic issue here is not unclear. If I’m the Democrats, I can live with a shutdown now that Trump has said he’ll take it. And I can live it with until Jan. 3, when the Democrats can pass a clean [stopgap] and send it over to the Senate and say you deal with it,” Jennings, the McConnell adviser, said. 

“If I were the president, I’d be wondering about what happens the first week of January when that happens,” he added. “If I were the president, I’d be looking for way out, a pivot out where you can show your people you fought for the wall and you can blame for the Democrats for not getting the wall but maybe you got something else.” 

One option would be for Trump to accept a small funding increase for border security and declare it a victory. 

Another option is to reprogram funding to pay for border fencing, thereby circumventing Democratic opposition. But GOP lawmakers say that could raise constitutional questions and they want to see the details of such a proposal before rendering judgment.