WASHINGTON — Among the story lines that have made the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency genuinely unique, few can top this one for its potential consequences for responsible governance as well as good politics: A government controlled exclusively by one party may shut itself down.
Four times in the past three decades, budgetary impasses have required non-essential personnel to stay home and the activities at their agencies to be suspended. In each case, at least one chamber of Congress was controlled by a political party different from the president’s, the stalemates reflecting intractable partisan disagreements over policies and spending priorities.
Not this time.
To remind, Republicans hold 55 percent of the seats in the House and 52 percent in the Senate, plus 100 percent of the seats in the Oval Office. That makes budget deliberations into something that, at least to the public, looks very much like a one-sided argument.
A shutdown, therefore, will inevitably be portrayed as the fault of a GOP incapable of settling disagreements with itself. Whether that means the party gets branded as dangerously schizophrenic or unforgivably incompetent may not matter to an electorate just months away from deciding whether it’s time to make a midterm partisan course correction.
The GOP base may not see it this way. But if the past is prologue, then the voters who could go either way — and thereby hold control of the House, at least, in their hands — will not take kindly to the return of gridlock less than a year after dysfunction was supposed to start easing with the end of divided government.
The political benefit of any triumph on the tax bill may well be wiped away by being labeled “do nothing” for being either unwilling or incapable of keeping the government’s lights on and its workers safe from furlough over the holidays.
And yet these Republicans show serious signs of propelling themselves off this fiscal cliff of their own making.
That moment won’t be coming this week, even though the law that’s kept appropriated programs running in place is going to lapse Friday night. There’s a tacit and somewhat bipartisan agreement to enact a stopgap bill, or continuing resolution, postponing this year’s version of the belated budgetary day of reckoning until the weekend of Christmas.
The nominal notion is that a holiday deadline will weaken the negotiating resolve of almost all Democrats. They may not hold the levers of power but still wield considerable leverage because getting the behemoth fiscal 2018 spending bill done will require some of their votes — at least eight in the Senate, to join the 52 Republicans in breaking a filibuster, and probably several dozen in the House, to offset the cluster of Freedom Caucus members and other dissidents who oppose any deal not totally aligned to their demands.
One hallmark of this extraordinary year in the capital has been that empirical truths about the government’s actions are being successfully denigrated as “fake,” while fact-free versions of alternate reality are being peddled to the public as what’s really going on in Washington.
In that environment, it comes as no surprise that Trump portrays himself as worry free, for himself or his adopted party, about the consequences of any shutdown — because he “would absolutely blame the Democrats” for holding fast to bargaining positions he’s eager to caricature beyond recognition.
“Illegal immigrants flooding into our country unchecked,” one of the president’s Twitter summaries from last week, which is simply not what Democrats are after.
Two of the minority’s main objectives for the year-end bill are providing statutory certainty for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, and also preventing much money from being dedicated to Trump’s proposed border wall.
Democrats and Republicans alike want to give the government a measure of stability by lifting for this year and next the separate spending caps regulating military and domestic spending, although the two parties are still apart on the amounts of extra spending to permit.
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