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After the Senate Votes, What’s Next for the Shutdown?

Trump could cave, or go it alone, or just ... lie.
January 24, 2019
After the Senate Votes, What’s Next for the Shutdown?
Furloughed federal workers and those aligned with them protest the partial government shutdown. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As our current government shutdown grinds—improbably, inevitably—into its second month, we have finally begun to see the first glimpses of potential movement in the heretofore gridlocked Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced this week that the Senate would finally vote Thursday on a pair of bills to fund the government: a Republican proposal that includes President Trump’s desired funding for a border wall, and a Democratic proposal that does not. Neither, of course, are likely to pass: the 60-vote threshold in the Senate makes some degree of bipartisanship a necessity, and we’ve seen nothing to indicate that a critical mass of either Republicans or Democrats is ready to break ranks. Here are the possible ways things could go next.

  1. Hey, what if they do pass something?

The votes today in the Senate are more a fig leaf than anything else: McConnell’s taken a lot of heat for not holding votes to end the shutdown, so hey, let’s hold a vote to end the shutdown. In truth, McConnell’s and Schumer’s hands remain very much tied. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that either leader pulled off the minor procedural miracle required to cobble together 60 votes for their proposal. Neither bill would make it two steps in any direction before getting gunned down: the GOP proposal in the House, the Democratic proposal in the Oval Office.

In other words, even in the best case scenario, the votes today leave us at exactly the same impasse as before.

  1. The beginning of a thaw, or the end of negotiations?

The fact that Thursday’s votes won’t end the shutdown, of course, doesn’t mean that they are completely meaningless. The Republican package is based on a proposal President Trump put forward last weekend, which tried to sweeten the deal for Democrats by backing away from the idea of a mammoth concrete wall in favor of traditional bollard-style barriers and including temporary legal status for Dreamers.

The White House has argued that these are major concessions, and they are! But there’s a major problem: The current proposal also tries to slip in some unrelated immigration changes that are anathema to Democrats.

How President Trump reacts to the Senate vote, therefore, will be key. It’s possible, of course, that Trump will go back to the drawing board and return with a cleaner, more stripped-down compromise proposal—one that Democrats would be harder-pressed to refuse. But it’s maybe more likely that, with immigration hardliners like Stephen Miller whispering in his ear, the president decides there’s just no negotiating with these Democrats. Maybe, he’ll decide, it’s time to go it alone.

  1. Emergency time?

Two weeks ago, President Trump began to float the idea that he could short-circuit congressional stalemate by declaring our porous southern border a “national emergency” and using unallocated defense funds to build his wall. The longer the shutdown dragged on, and the more often he brought it up, the more inevitable it seemed that he would eventually pull the trigger. Trump has scaled down that rhetoric, but it’s not hard to imagine him picking it back up again after congressional negotiations break down again.

Would declaring a national emergency to force the wall make a mockery of the very concept of national emergencies and trample over every conservative platitude about the dangers of a runaway executive branch? You bet! But would it actually be illegal? Well, that’s harder to say.

For now, Trump still seems reluctant to take such a drastic step. But there’s yet another way Trump could get a win in the eyes of his base without winning over Congress: a risky strategy, but one he’s proven a master of many times in the past. He could just lie.

  1. The gaslighting approach

At this point, it’s become pretty clear that Donald Trump is not winning the shutdown. As the crisis drags on and more government services stutter to a halt, and more furloghed workers are seen in food lines, Trump’s approval rating is sagging dramatically, even among his core constituencies. Nancy Pelosi has no incentive to take her foot off Trump’s neck by agreeing to a compromise. So what if Trump caves, accepts Pelosi’s offer to reopen the government—then turns around and triumphantly declares victory on the wall anyway?

It sounds implausible, until you realize it’s already happening. Trump has been tweeting for months that the wall is already under construction—he did so as recently as Wednesday.

If you think he’s going to stop doing that and admit defeat just because he couldn’t outstare Pelosi—well, he’s got a wall to sell you.

The gaslighting approach carries real risk, of course. Immigration hardliners like Ann Coulter—a group who, for better or worse, still see Trump as a means to a policy end and not simply a cult leader to be worshiped and defended at all costs—would raise holy hell. His base, which has given him the benefit of the doubt countless times in the past, might finally find this particular pill too large to swallow. But there’s a chance Trump doesn’t have any better option. And in that case, who are you going to believe—your favorite president, or your lying eyes?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.