President is wild card as shutdown fears grow
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are wondering if they can trust President Trump to sign legislation to keep the government funded and avoid a shutdown before the end of the year.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers say a government shutdown is not off the table and see Trump, who has refused to concede the election, as the main wild card.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who met with Senate Republicans on Wednesday, said the president wants to keep the government funded. But he’s not ruling out the possibility of a year-end shutdown.
“You can’t guarantee anything,” he said before adding, “It’s a high priority to make sure we keep our government funded.”
Both parties have reason to avoid a shutdown with two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5 set to decide the Senate majority. Democrats would have to win both of the races to win the majority.
A shutdown would add yet another note of uncertainty to those races, with whichever side is blamed for a shutdown likely taking on the biggest risk.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a veteran of these battles, said nothing is guaranteed.
“It’s in nobody’s interest. It’s not in the president’s interest, it’s not in the House’s interest, it’s not in our interest,” he said of a shutdown.
He then added: “You never know around here.”
Meadows said the White House is interested in working with Senate Republicans to wrap up the year’s remaining agenda items, but provided few details.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters after the Wednesday GOP lunch that the White House would support a year-end omnibus spending bill, even though it could approach $1.4 trillion and Trump has criticized such measures in the past.
“It’s our hope, and I think this is the Speaker’s view as well, that we can come together on an omnibus and pass it,” he said. “I believe that’s the preference of the White House as well.”
McConnell’s colleagues warn that Trump is unpredictable and could easily find a reason to blow up the spending talks next month.
The year-end spending package and the annual Defense authorization bill, which Trump has threatened to veto over language removing Confederate names from military installations, are the last two major legislative items over which Trump can exercise his leverage.
“I have more confidence in us being able to put together a package, I have less confidence in the president’s willingness to sign it,” said a Republican senator, who predicted that if Trump signaled opposition to a large spending deal, GOP leaders “will take their foot off the gas.”
The senator cited funding for Trump’s signature initiative, a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, as a potential land mine.
“Think about how many fights we’ve been involved in over the wall,” the lawmaker said. “If everything gets held up over wall funding, it just makes my head hurt.”
Senators familiar with congressional negotiations to fund the border wall say there is a tentative agreement to provide as much as $2 billion for the wall, but it remains to be seen if Trump will sign off on that amount.
A second Republican senator said “we’d like to get one done,” referring to a year-end omnibus spending bill.
But the lawmaker cautioned that “no member can be entirely certain about what the president is going to do.”
Trump declared in March 2018 “that I will never sign another bill like this again” after Congress sent a 2,232-page omnibus spending package to his desk.
The president threw a curveball at Congress in December 2018 when the White House signaled to Republican senators that Trump would support a deal to fund the government right before Christmas, and then the president backtracked, leading to a 34-day partial government shutdown.
Rank-and-file GOP senators say they have little sense of how engaged the White House is on funding the government for fiscal 2021 as Trump appears wrapped up in disputing the results of the Nov. 3 election and exercising his executive authority on issues ranging from troop levels in Afghanistan to energy exploration in the arctic.
The Senate held its last votes of the week Wednesday and senators are not expected to return to town until Nov. 30, which means consideration of a year-end omnibus or stopgap spending measure will be delayed until December.
Government funding is due to expire Dec. 11.
One cause for concern has been the inability of Trump’s senior advisers and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to reach a deal on a new coronavirus relief package after months of negotiations, even though there is strong support on both sides of the aisle for distributing more federal aid.
The problem is that Trump, Pelosi and McConnell have been unable to agree on the size and scope of the package.
Another cause for concern is Trump’s actions in recent weeks.
In addition to refusing to concede the election, he has accused election officials in states such as Pennsylvania of “corruption” and has fired senior officials viewed as insufficiently loyal.
Trump last week announced he had “terminated” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who publicly disagreed with him over the summer about using the Insurrection Act to quell protests.
He also announced the termination of Christopher Krebs, the head of the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, after Krebs disputed the president’s claims that widespread voter fraud and computer glitches marred the election results.
Republican senators on Wednesday criticized the decision, with Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) warning it would add “to the confusion and chaos.”
Democrats warn that the year-end spending negotiation will be another opportunity for Trump to disrupt Washington.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said Trump “is very impulsive.”
“I hear good things about appropriations process, but you just never know from day to day,” he said, adding that Trump “is always in that mode” of wanting to shake things up “but it’s in its extreme lately.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said “you can never predict what the president is going to do.”
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