Looming shutdown raises fundamental question: Can GOP govern

The Republican Party’s struggle to forge a plan to keep the government open exposes deep, intractable rifts that raise questions about its ability to govern, with GOP leaders handcuffed by party divisions and whipsawed by President Trump’s outbursts on how to proceed.

The poisonous dynamic has now pushed Washington to the brink of a partial government shutdown, which will occur after midnight Friday if a one-month spending bill fails to pass Congress.

A funding lapse would mark the first time in U.S. history that there has been a government shutdown, with federal employees furloughed, when one party controlled both Congress and the White House.

“We have one real responsibility here, and that’s to keep the government funded,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “There’s a lot of stuff we want to do or we’d like to do, but there’s one thing we must do and that’s to pass a budget and keep the government funded. And it is very frustrating that simple, basic task has become such a herculean effort.”

The GOP’s struggles have been months in the making.

Trump has repeatedly mused about the prospects of halting federal operations, saying at one point that the government needed a “good shutdown” to teach Democrats a lesson. The budget he proposed last year was so sparse on key details that the Congressional Budget Office said it could not analyze its impact on revenue.

His aides have not hashed out a broader spending agreement with GOP leaders or Democrats, and the White House and GOP leaders have remained split on how much money to appropriate for the military.

Senate Republicans spent the second half of 2017 immersed in tax negotiations, spending little time focused on how to pay the government’s bills this year.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which votes on spending bills, has held just one full committee hearing since July. Its chairman, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), has missed large spells of time in office battling health issues. The House Budget Committee, meanwhile, has had three different chairmen in 14 months.

As Congress remained focused on taxes and trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers resorted to passing four short-term spending bills known as continuing resolutions to keep the government operating.

These agreements essentially freeze spending at existing levels. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed frustration that they lurch from one temporary deal to the next, without any long-term strategy, and patience has worn thin.

“We’re not getting our job done, and it’s about time we admit it and we change the system so it works for both the majority and the minority parties,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Thursday. He said he would not support the short-term spending bill that Republicans were desperately trying to pass Thursday, making it virtually impossible that the bill can become law.

A visibly frustrated Marc Short, the White House’s legislative affairs director who is working to try to avoid a shutdown, placed all of the blame of the current predicament on Congress. In an event hosted by the University of Virginia on Thursday, he said everyone was hyperfocused on the government funding vote but not enough attention was being paid to all the missed opportunities in past months to avoid the deadline.

“What’s missing in this conversation is the compete dysfunction of Congress and its inability to actually complete an appropriations process,” Short said.

Senate Republicans aren’t expected to vote on a budget resolution at all this year, a move that would have been unthinkable in recent years, as they said it was a cornerstone of good governing.

“I think our appropriations process is basically broken and that’s one of the casualties here,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday, referring to tighter limits on military spending.

These continuing resolutions have made leaders from both parties restless and increasingly defiant heading into the November midterm elections, when Democrats see an opportunity to wrest control of one or both chambers of Congress.

Republicans have said that even though they control the White House and Congress, Senate rules make it impossible for them to pass spending bills without bipartisan support.

But there are no signs that Republicans are united behind their own budget proposals. They control just a 51-49 margin, and several Republicans have said they won’t support the spending bill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is battling cancer and isn’t expected to be back in time for a vote on Friday, and they need 60 votes to proceed.

As congressional leaders searched for a solution Thursday, Trump upended the process by renewing his demand that the U.S. taxpayer fund construction of a border wall with Mexico and saying he opposed reauthorizing a health care program for children as part of the short-term spending bill — a stance that he later reversed.

He also made an ominous threat about changing the budget process if a shutdown occurred, saying, “If the country shuts down, which could very well be, the budget should be handled a lot differently than it’s been handled over the last long period of time — many years.”

These comments have created a moving target for Republicans, as they try to force concessions from Democrats, only to be undercut by the White House’s evolving demands.

The president’s rapidly fluctuating positions have frustrated Republicans who are working to blame the budget problems on Senate Democrats. Even though Democrats have their own divisions, especially between those from conservative states and other, more liberal members, they appear to be uniting because of Trump’s changing demands.

Those Twitter posts emboldened Democrats and infuriated a number of Republicans who were hoping to patch together enough votes to avert a shutdown.

Democrats, who also have major differences on spending bills, have used the GOP disunity to unite. They have insisted that any spending bill must take action to prevent the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

Trump had appeared open to that idea early last week, but his approach changed. He became more rigid in his insistence that immigration and spending bills include money for a wall along the Mexico border, one that he initially said would be financed by Mexico but now requires $20 billion in U.S. taxpayer money.

“The President’s repeated statements urging a government shutdown are beneath the office and have heightened the budgetary dysfunction,” Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrats, said in a joint statement. Virginia would be hit particularly hard by a government shutdown, in part because of the large number of federal employees who live there.

Today’s budget dysfunction has many of its roots in the election of a tide of conservative tea party members in 2010. They pushed the party to clash with President Barack Obama repeatedly, demanding measures to shrink the size of the government and eliminate the deficit.

This tea party bloc helped push for a 16-day government shutdown in 2013, led largely by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over complaints about the Affordable Care Act.

But the Republican Party never fully united during the Obama administration, with some members pushing for dramatic spending changes and others wary of slashing benefits for the elderly and the poor.

The Obama administration leveraged this GOP split by seeking deals that — even if it splintered the Republican Party — could still become law.

In 2017, Republicans took control of the White House and both chambers of Congress and they no longer had Obama to blame for budget disagreements.

After one year of complete GOP control in Washington, the government’s budget picture has only worsened. It now has roughly $21 trillion in debt. The U.S. government spent $666 billion more than it brought in through revenue last year, and that figure is expected to grow this year because of the deep tax cuts that went into effect Jan. 1.

Ryan said Thursday that this part of governing has faltered because of intransigence by Senate Democrats, whose support is necessary for any spending bill to pass into law. But Republicans haven’t held any votes on these measures in the Senate Appropriations Committee or the Senate floor, as it’s unclear whether they have enough support within the party to pass any of the bills.

This situation has bogged down other GOP budget goals. Republican promises to overhaul programs by curtailing welfare spending have largely been sidelined after Trump backed away from this push, saying it would only work if Democrats came on board.

Changes to those programs probably would have cut the deficit but, instead, Republicans are now pursuing a deal that could add close to $250 billion in new spending for military and nondefense programs. In addition, lawmakers have looked at adding another $80 billion in spending to address hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters that occurred in 2017.

But these negotiations have stalled repeatedly and are one reason that Congress kept passing short-term spending bills until lawmakers this week showed signs they had enough.