President Trump‘s surprise move to threaten a government shutdown if Congress fails to fund his border wall shows he is embracing the hardline messaging of the House Freedom Caucus and not the more careful approach of GOP leaders ahead of the midterms. The threats appeal to Trump’s base, and could energize conservative voters in districts across the country. But if it leads to a shutdown, it’s possible Republican majorities in both chambers could pay a heavy price, which is why GOP leaders have sought to tamp down any talk of a government closure.
Trump’s tough shutdown talk this week highlights the messaging divide between Republican leaders and conservatives in Congress as House members hit the campaign trail for the month of August.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) want Republicans seeking reelection to focus on the booming economy and the GOP’s tax-cuts package passed last December. House GOP leaders are also touting a new campaign slogan for the midterms, asking Americans if they are “Better Off Now.” They believe that’s a message that will propel them to victory in competitive swing districts and states around the country, helping them stave off a Democratic wave this fall. Trump’s shutdown threat, however, has distracted from that broad economic message, but it’s appealing to loyalists whose support he needs right now as he battles Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and approval ratings in the low to mid 40s. “His base is reacting positively to it,” one conservative House lawmaker told The Hill.
GOP aides said they did not know whether Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the two leaders of the conservative Freedom Caucus, were privately encouraging Trump to threaten a shutdown. The HFC leaders speak frequently to the president. But Trump’s message is consistent with the one being made by Jordan, the former Freedom Caucus chairman running for Speaker who said Monday that “heck yes!” conservatives would fight tooth and nail to stop GOP leaders from punting a fight over funding the border wall and other Trump priorities until after Election Day.
“How is that being consistent with what we promised the American people? I think actually just the opposite is what we should be doing,” Jordan said in an interview with the Conservative Review. “Do we want to nationalize these elections and fire up Republican and Trump voters to come out and vote for us?” Jordan asked. “Then we better just not kick the can past the elections; we better actually do the things we said we were going to do.” Unlike moderate Republicans facing tough reelections, Jordan and the conservative Freedom Caucus represent safe GOP districts and are primarily focused on energizing and appeasing their base as they criss-cross their districts during the four-week August recess. Another conservative group, the 160-member Republican Study Committee — the largest caucus on Capitol Hill and one that is regularly in contact with the White House — is supportive of reviving the immigration debate ahead of the midterms. “Voters expect us to secure the border,” a conservative staffer told The Hill. “Republicans still need to keep that promise.”
As Trump knows well, threatening a shut down over inaction on the border wall is red meat for conservatives. It’s a playbook he’s repeatedly turned to as president.
Still, it’s an unexpected midterms messaging strategy that’s not exactly supported by McConnell and Ryan, who are trying to downplay talk of what would be the third shutdown of 2018.
McConnell, who’s focused on moving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh through the confirmation process, told the Washington Post he’s “confident” Congress can avoid a shutdown this fall. Later on the Senate floor, he said senators this week will take steps toward “completing a regular appropriations process and funding the government in a timely and orderly manner.”
Both McConnell and Ryan huddled with Trump at the White House last week and agreed that funding for the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border doesn’t need to be finished before the 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, according to a source familiar with the meeting. The president, the source said, backs the $5 billion funding for the wall and other security provisions in the House’s Homeland Security appropriations bill.
After that meeting, Ryan told reporters Trump was willing to be “patient” about funding for the wall, and McConnell said that money would “probably” come after the November midterm election.
Trump apparently had other ideas. The president tweeted Sunday that he’d be “willing to ‘shut down’ the government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!” The following day he doubled down on his threat to shutter the federal government Oct. 1 if Congress can’t deliver funding for his border wall and other security measures that he promised voters during the 2016 campaign. “I would have no problem doing a shutdown,” Trump said at a White House news conference, suggesting that his tweet was not a one-off threat.
But not all Republicans are convinced the president’s shutdown threat is serious, noting Trump’s decision to sign a $1.3 trillion omnibus earlier this year despite fierce criticism of the legislation at the time. “One of the calculations that members of Congress will have to make is whether or not this time is any different from every other time the administration has promised a border war funding,” a GOP aide told The Hill. “Every time in the past they’ve talked tough, but they never put their money where their mouth is. And many members are hesitant to go all-in on any type of border wall gambit.”
Moderate Republicans who played an active role in helping craft the House GOP’s compromise immigration bill that failed in a 121-300 vote last month said the president’s immigration and wall funding push now is “frustrating.”
“If they’d actually leaned in, we could have passed something already,” a GOP staffer who was close to the compromise bill negotiations told The Hill, noting there hasn’t been much movement after the failure of two comprehensive immigration bills earlier this year.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) — one of the most vocal proponents of finding a permanent solution for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era initiative shielding from deportation minors who were brought to the country illegally — said despite the hurdles faced earlier this year, he remains open to working on a plan that can pass both chambers. But Curbelo, one of Democrats’ top targets in November, pushed back firmly on the president’s shutdown threat, saying in an email to The Hill that a government shutdown is not a good campaign strategy for the GOP. “A good strategy would be passing the immigration bill we negotiated,” he said.