As a candidate, US president Donald Trump insisted he’d make Mexico pay for a wall on its border. As president, he’s trying to strong-arm lawmakers into funding it. “If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said (paywall) at a rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22.
Even in normal circumstances passing a spending package is steeped in complexity, and when Congress returns from summer recess on Sept. 5 it will have less than a month to do it. Simultaneously, it must agree to lift the federal debt ceiling by Sept 29 to stop the country defaulting.
What’s more, Republicans are deeply divided on what should be in the spending package, and not least on the wall itself. A Texan congressman whose district has 800 miles (1,300 km) of border has called it the “most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.” Throw in the fact that they need support from at least eight Democrats in the Senate to prevent the opposition party filibustering the spending bill, and the task looks gargantuan.
So what can Trump do? Here are some options.
1. Paralyze Republicans in the House
Trump does has a serious mandate from voters for the wall, which was his loudest policy promise throughout the campaign. To force it onto the table, the White House should start with the House of Representatives, says Jon Lieber, US practice head at Eurasia Group and a former senior advisor to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. “He’ll have to rally conservatives inside the House to insist on having border wall funding or they won’t vote for a spending deal,” he said. If he gets enough people on board, the theory goes, House speaker Paul Ryan would have to consider some money for the wall.
But it’s a big “if.” Trump has been hemorrhaging support in Washington and lawmakers are highly aware, as Lieber puts it, of “how bad Trump is for the Republican brand.” So there’s little incentive for most of them to join forces with him.
Further, the Republican leadership has been held hostage to hardliners before—and it didn’t work out well for the hardliners. In 2013, the conservative Freedom Caucus forced a shutdown over Obamacare spending. The result: the leadership did a deal with Democrats, passing a bipartisan package that largely ignored the right-wingers’ demands.
“[The episode] drove Republicans’ approval ratings into the ground. It would be even worse now because back then they could share the blame with president Obama, calling him unreasonable—now there’s no way to spin this as the Democrats’ fault,” says Jason Roberts, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of four books on Congressional politics.
Faced with a similar threat from conservatives, therefore, the party leadership is likely to turn again to the Democrats to avoid punishment in the polls, says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t believe McConnell or Ryan wants to preside over a period of Republican control when the government shuts down,” she said. “That would be highly counterproductive in showing voters that Republicans know how to govern.”
2. Blackmail the Democrats
But if Republicans need the Democrats to get the spending bill through, they shouldn’t count on much support for what House minority leader Nancy Pelosi this week called “president Trump’s multi-billion dollar border wall boondoggle.”
In anticipation of this, the White House is rumored to be preparing a bargaining chip: the 800,000 young people who came to the US illegally as children but are protected from deportation by Obama’s “dreamers” executive order. So far, Trump has left the executive order intact, but he could threaten to nix it if Democrats don’t agree to wall funding.
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, says he “very, very much doubt[s]” Democrats would go for that, but speculates they might settle for “some modest amount of funding for a wall that will be much more like a fence than a wall, and would have sizeable gaps because of private property on the border.”
Even that might be a stretch, though. If Trump pledges to keep the “dreamers” order in exchange for Democrats approving wall funding, the Democrats “don’t have any reason to believe he’ll keep his word,” said one House Democratic staffer.
3. Bribe the Democrats
If blackmail doesn’t work, why not mix it with bribery? Find a policy the Democrats are so passionate about that they’ll fund the wall in exchange for that and a pledge to protect the “dreamers.”
One thing that might entice them: funding to fix parts of Obamacare, say Ornstein and Lieber. “Democrats might say that to pay for the border wall—because border security actually polls pretty well—they want to appropriate money for cost-sharing reductions on the Affordable Care Act,” says Lieber. (Cost-sharing reductions are government subsidies on health insurance plans for the poor. The Trump administration has been threatening to cancel them, which would make insurance prohibitively expensive for many of the people Obamacare was supposed to help.) “That would be a win for all sides.”
The problem? “I’m not sure if Trump is capable of negotiating something that’s a win for all sides,” Lieber says. And it wouldn’t be easy to persuade Congressional Republicans, who have spent most of the last decade railing against Obamacare. Giving it more money in exchange for a wall that they’re not very fond of anyway won’t make them happy. “There is not a lot of political excitement within Republicans in Congress to fund the border wall, and to fund it at the cost of shutting down the government because they can’t get Democrat votes,” says Binder.
4. Veto the bill
If it looks like there’s not going to be a compromise on the wall, Republicans may pass a package excluding the wall and dare Trump to veto it. (This would probably done by first passing a three-month extension to current spending levels and then passing a new funding package, sans wall, on Dec. 15.)
If Trump vetos the bill and Congress can’t get a two-thirds majority in both houses to override him, the government would shut down. The last time that happened was when president Bill Clinton nixed soaring budget cuts put forward by a Republican Congress in 1995. It worked out well for the president then; the GOP essentially caved in (paywall).
This time it would be different, however. When the presidency and Congress are held by different parties, as they were in 1995, blame for shutdowns is divided between the two—and, in recent history, Congress has come off worse. This time it’s all held by one party, and “by now threatening to shut down the government…[Trump] owns the shutdown,” Ornstein says.
What would happen? Who knows. Any solution would have to thread a needle between Trump’s desire for a “big, beautiful wall,” Democrats’ hatred of that idea, Republican budget hawks’ opposition to any massive spending project, and many Republican border representatives’ fears that building a wall would cause flood damage and mean expropriating huge swathes of private land.
Whatever the outcome, a shutdown isn’t going to make Trump and his wavering party look competent. As Ornstein put it, “Trump has stepped on his own private parts and those of his party by threatening to shut down the government.”
Heather Timmons contributed to this report.