Republican roulette: Is another government shutdown just ahead?

No tax bill, no spending bill and no coherent policy: Republicans stare at disaster, and hope to blame Democrats

Published December 7, 2017 5:00AM (EST)

Paul Ryan (AP/Susan Walsh)
Paul Ryan (AP/Susan Walsh)

Despite having passed a controversial and widely despised tax bill through the Senate, congressional Republicans still face numerous difficulties before anything reaches President Donald Trump's desk. Significant differences remain between the two bills passed by the Senate and the House. With the GOP holding a minimal 52-vote majority in the Senate, the odds are high that whatever final bill emerges from the conference committee of members from both chambers will lean toward the Senate’s version.

Further complicating matters for House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is that the stopgap funding law that currently funds the federal government expires on Friday at midnight. At this writing, the GOP has no agreement on what would replace it.

Far-right Republicans have long chafed at the idea of passing temporary “continuing resolutions,” since they believe -- entirely without empirical evidence -- that Americans want to cut federal spending as much as they do. The GOP’s congressional leaders are at least somewhat aware that this opinion runs counter to public polling, which has repeatedly demonstrated that budget cuts are wildly unpopular, even among Republican voters.

As a result, GOP leaders have tried to draw Democrats into their spending reduction proposals with concerns about the federal budget deficit. It has worked in the past, including in 2011 when President Barack Obama signed the Budget Control Act (better known as the “budget sequester”), which even now forces some mandatory spending reductions.

Getting Democrats to sign on has sometimes allowed Republicans to make actual spending reductions and offered the possibility of even larger cuts, such as the “grand bargain” Obama and former Speaker John Boehner nearly reached in 2011 to cut Social Security and Medicare in exchange for some additional taxes. But "bipartisanship" has become a bad word or fatal sign of weakness among conservative activists, so the built-in preference for Republicans has been to try and get things done within the walls of the GOP.

But making major federal policy changes has proven very difficult for Republicans, largely thanks to the efforts of a group of 30 or so far-right House members who call themselves the Freedom Caucus. The progeny of the moribund Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus has essentially tried to operate as a party within a party, its members banding together to try and force leadership’s hand in their direction.

As might be expected given the caucus' lack of legislative experience, the unpopularity of its viewpoints and its close relationships with outside activist groups with no expertise at anything besides monetizing their members, none of the strategies advocated by the Freedom Caucus -- such as the failed brinksmanship that led to a 2013 government shutdown -- have ever worked.

Failure has never been much of an obstacle for conservative groups, however. Despite the fact that even the sainted Ronald Reagan was never able to cut domestic spending, American conservatives have persistently tried to push this unpopular viewpoint since the 1980s. The Trump presidency, however, has presented a special challenge to right-wing elected officials: Republican voters arguably never supported their policies in the first place and are now far more interested in Trump’s signature issues of restricting immigration and stirring up anti-Islamic sentiment.

Since Trump has little personal interest in policy outside those core areas, he has largely allowed Ryan and McConnell to dictate the legislative agenda. This was exactly the dynamic that Republican elites noticed as early as January 2016, when they began openly talking about how they preferred the smash-mouth real estate tycoon over his principal rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

GOP leaders figured that embracing Trump, despite his bizarre, vulgar pronouncements and unorthodox personal life, would be better for them than elevating Cruz and his Christian supremacist and radically anti-government allies. They also figured -- correctly, as things turned out -- that Trump likely had a better chance of winning the presidency.

Picking Trump has certainly had negative effects on the Republican Party's future coherence. But in terms of keeping the GOP’s anti-government wing in check, McConnell and his allies appear to have made the right choice. Despite his periodic swipes at the Republican congressional leadership, Trump has essentially allowed them wide leeway and largely abandoned the populist economic policies on which he campaigned. He has even shown a willingness to attack the Freedom Caucus, as he did in March when he repeatedly bashed the group after it briefly killed one of several House bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Trump has also leaned heavily on the GOP elites for his executive and judicial nominations, and also for his campaign endorsements.

Far-right Republicans have also lost some leverage since Trump has already shown a willingness to work with Democratic leaders on continuing resolutions. At this moment, however, House GOP leaders appear to be trying to go it alone, even though a potentially catastrophic government shutdown is less than 48 hours away.

Even if the GOP can somehow pass single-party budget resolutions out of the House, the Senate’s filibuster rules only allow revenue bills to pass with a simple majority. According to Politico, Republican leaders are hoping to peel off a few red-state Democrats -- there are 10 from states Trump carried last year who face difficult re-election battles in 2018 -- to pass a two-week continuing resolution by including spending for children’s health insurance and hurricane relief.

It's conceivable that might work, but it also seems the federal bureaucracy is preparing for a shutdown. On Dec. 1, the Office of Management and Budget held a conference call with top officials at various agencies instructing them to get ready for it.

While Republican congressional leaders have been busy trying to wrangle votes, Trump spent his Wednesday trying to blame Democrats for a possible shutdown -- a blatant lie even by his standards.

"It could happen," the president said at a news briefing when asked whether a shutdown might happen. “The Democrats are really looking at something that is very dangerous to our country. They are looking at shutting down.”

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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