WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday sought to pin blame on Democrats for a looming government shutdown that he had previously said he would proudly own, saying he hoped to keep funds flowing past midnight but that his adversaries must choose to fund his border wall.
“Now it’s up to the Democrats as to whether or not we have a shutdown tonight,” Trump said at the White House, moments after meeting with Senate Republicans who have repeatedly informed him there were not enough votes to sustain his position. “I hope we don’t, but we are totally prepared for a very long shutdown. This is our only chance that we will ever have, in our opinion.”
It was a striking reversal from his televised declaration during a combative meeting with congressional Democrats a week ago that he relished the prospect of shuttering the government to force them to accept a wall, and would not blame them for the outcome.
Hours before a midnight deadline when government funding will lapse, confusion reigned on the Senate floor as leaders struggled to win agreement to begin debating stopgap spending legislation passed by the House Thursday night that would keep the government running through Feb. 8 and provide $5.7 billion to begin construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, Trump’s signature campaign promise.
But the measure was doomed, given that it would need bipartisan support to advance and Democrats are uniformly opposed. What was supposed to be a 15-minute vote dragged on for more than an hour as Republican leaders toiled even to secure a majority to agree to consider the bill, with two retiring Republican senators who have been sharply critical of Trump threatening to block the move.
“Why move to proceed to a bill that has no future?” asked Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who voted against the measure. “Let’s do one that actually can pass.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., huddled in hushed conversations with Republicans and Democrats and shuttled on and off the Senate floor as he delayed casting his vote, trying to determine whether it was better to block the measure altogether or allow it to advance, providing an opportunity to revise it and remove the wall money.
Democrats made it clear the proceedings were a waste of time.
“The Senate will take part in a pointless exercise to demonstrate to our House colleagues and the president what everybody knows: There are not the votes in the Senate for an expensive taxpayer-funded border wall,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader.
And Trump shelved plans to go to his winter home in Florida, seemingly preparing for a shutdown. At the same time, he showed no sign of retreating from his demands, and Republicans seemed resigned to the fact that the proposal would have to fail in the Senate before it would be possible to persuade the president to consider an alternative — if doing so would ever be possible.
During a meeting with Republican senators, Trump refused to give them specifics about what kind of plan he could support, including how much money he would accept for fortifying the border, despite their repeated efforts to ascertain his conditions for a deal, according to a Senate official briefed on the session who insisted on anonymity to describe it. The president talked at length about the wall and repeatedly pressed the senators about eliminating the filibuster so they could fund it with 51 votes.
Republicans seemed resigned to the fact that the wall funding would have to fail once more in the Senate before it would be possible to persuade the president to consider an alternative — if doing so would ever be possible.
“In my view, this legislation would be quite uncontroversial — quite uncontroversial — in a more normal political moment, in a moment where both parties put the national interest above any personal spite for the president,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader. “I support the additional border security and disaster assistance that the House added to the bill, and I’m proud to vote for it.”
Privately, officials on Capitol Hill and at the White House conceded that the measure would fail, and they had no clear Plan B. In the absence of a plan for averting a shutdown, Trump spent the day maneuvering to ensure that Democrats would shoulder the blame notwithstanding his public courting of the dysfunctional denouement.
He began the day warning on Twitter that a partial government shutdown “will last for a very long time.”
“If enough Dems don’t vote, it will be a Democrat Shutdown!” Trump wrote. “House Republicans were great yesterday!”
He was referring to a nearly party line vote in the House on Thursday night to add the wall funding to the stopgap spending bill despite almost certain defeat of the measure once it reached the Senate. House Republicans also added roughly $8 billion in disaster aid for farmers, a critical sweetener that helped advance a bill that they feared until the last moment might not have enough votes to pass.
Yet the only certainty to emerge was an intense round of political blame-shifting. House passage of the wall funding did shift the dynamics of the fight, putting Senate Democrats in the position of being the spoilers of a measure to keep the government running.
Democrats, who believe their leverage will only grow when they assume the majority in the House in January, did not appear to be cowed by the tactic.
“Abandon your shutdown strategy,” Schumer said on the Senate floor, addressing his remarks to the president. “You’re not getting the wall today, next week, or on January 3 when Democrats take control of the House.”
The president also urged McConnell to pursue what is known as the “nuclear option” and abolish a rule that allows any senator to block final votes on legislation, often used by the minority party to thwart major bills. The nuclear option was used by Senate Democrats to lower the threshold to 51 votes and end a Republican blockade of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees. Senate Republicans then used the same tactic to end filibusters of Supreme Court nominees.
“Mitch, use the Nuclear Option and get it done!” Trump tweeted. “Our Country is counting on you!”
McConnell has long said that there was no support for dismantling the 60-vote requirement on legislation, and he and a number of senior Republican senators released statements on Friday morning in advance of the meeting with Trump making it clear it would not happen.
“The leader has said for years that the votes are not there in the conference to use the nuclear option,” David Popp, his spokesman, said in a statement. “Just this morning, several senators put out statements confirming their opposition, and confirming that there is not a majority in the conference to go down that road.”
If the House-passed measure fails in the Senate, which is corralled members back to Washington four days before Christmas to consider it, it is unclear what prospects remain for keeping the government fully funded past midnight.
Even as Trump mocked Democratic opposition and objections to his vision of a wall at the border with Mexico (“It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better,” Trump wrote), he seemed to acknowledge that the wall funding proposal is not getting through the Senate.
“No matter what happens today in the Senate, Republican House Members should be very proud of themselves,” Trump wrote. “They flew back to Washington from all parts of the World in order to vote for Border Security and the Wall.”
“We will get it done, one way or the other!” the president wrote in another tweet, having delayed his winter vacation to stay through the midnight deadline.
Solutions to the impasse appeared to be in short supply for a disgruntled, exhausted legislative body that has repeatedly failed over the last two years to reach a compromise over funding for Trump’s signature campaign promise. At times, both sides have floated proposals that sought to pair their disparate priorities, such as trading wall funding for protection from deportation for young immigrants brought illegally to the country as children, often known as “Dreamers.” But momentum for a Dreamers-for-wall deal appears to have evaporated. Trump has offered no enticements to Democrats, and Democrats, emboldened by midterm congressional elections that handed them control of the House, have Democrats said they would not give even a dollar for a wall.
With funding set to expire, the nine federal departments and several other agencies were beginning to ready themselves. Some agencies will have enough money in the pipeline to carry them into the new year, but thousands of government workers are expected to be furloughed or required to work through the holidays without pay.
“It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, told reporters on Thursday. “It’s not lost on me in terms of the potential hardship.”