Retreat? We may fund the border wall without a shutdown, says Sarah Sanders

The NYT’s headline as I write this: “White House Signals Retreat on Shutdown Threat.” That word, “retreat,” is not one easily digested by a populist strongman, especially in the context of immigration. He can get away with retreating on tax cuts or foreign policy or even trade. He cannot, cannot retreat on the wall. But if he does, and he pretty much has to given the math in the Senate, we all know how this plays out from here:

Right. For various reasons, he has less leverage than Democrats do if the government shuts down. But at this point any outcome that doesn’t involve Schumer and Pelosi forking over at least $5 billion for the wall will give Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson wholly predictable aneurysms. And then Trump will be mad at his advisors for convincing him to do something that gave him bad press on the right, even though it was clear from the start that trying to use a shutdown to squeeze money for the wall wouldn’t work. Certainly not so soon after a midterm in which the GOP kitchen-sinked Democrats for being soft on the border and lost 40 House seats anyway.

Time to climb down:

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders signaled that Trump would support a bipartisan spending deal with $1.6 billion for border security — which has already been endorsed by key senators — rather than forcing a shutdown on Friday…

“We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion that we’ll work with Congress if they will make sure that we get a bill passed that provides not just the funding for the wall, but there is a piece of legislation that has been pushed around … that provides roughly $26 billion in border security including $1.6 billion for the wall,” Sanders said in an interview with Fox News…

Sanders did not say where the additional border money would come from to reach Trump’s full $5 billion demand, but administration officials have hinted it could come from the military’s budget.

Hey, all’s well that ends well. If he can get $5 billion for the wall without forcing a shutdown, so much the better. Except … if it’s that easy, why was he threatening a shutdown to begin with? Just make a deal with the Dems for $1.6 billion, which has been on the table from the start, and then move some money around from other budgets to cover the remaining $3.4 billion.

It’s not that easy, it turns out. For one thing, the Times notes that the $1.6 billion Democrats have mentioned “expressly prohibits the additional border money to be used on a wall.” The Senate agreed this past summer to appropriate that amount for “pedestrian fencing,” not quite the same thing as a wall. Any forthcoming deal would require Dems to lift that restriction, something their base won’t like. And although Schumer was talking $1.6 billion recently, the party has backed off that number lately and instead offered Trump $1.3 billion, an amount that’s already been signed into law. In other words, they’re (momentarily) so opposed to border barriers on principle that they’d deny him an extra $300 million just so that they can say they didn’t approve any increase in funding.

What about getting it from the military budget, as Sanders seems to imply? The problem there is that the Pentagon’s money is earmarked for particular purposes. Said a Democratic aide to Politico, “Existing laws and guidelines make it essentially impossible to fund significant wall construction with [military construction] funds… There are virtually no Defense funds that can be used or reprogrammed for these purposes.” No doubt Mattis’s staff is looking into it right now, however reluctantly.

The obvious compromise is to do $1.6 billion for the wall, not for “fencing,” but I don’t think that compromise can happen before a shutdown. It’s too unhappy for both sides. Trump and his fans would be pissed that they got such a measly amount for his grand border project, just a third of what he had requested. Democrats, meanwhile, would be pissed that he got anything. “Why are we casting a symbolic vote of confidence in Trump and the wall by providing a nickel for it?” they’d ask. Plus, once the project is funded, it becomes that much easier for Trump to say in years to come that we need to keep funding it so as not to have wasted the initial investment. Maybe after a two-week standoff amid growing public annoyance that compromise might start to look acceptable to Democrats and Republicans, but it doesn’t now. And so we wait for the inevitable Trump tweet ruling it out, notwithstanding Sanders’s comments here about finding $5 billion elsewhere.

I’m convinced that the GOP’s failure to fund the wall despite having had total control of government will become a key nationalist grievance in years to come. “We had the filibuster to contend with,” McConnell will say to critics. But the filibuster could have been nuked, nationalists will reply — an argument that’ll grow more potent if/when Democrats nuke it themselves after they have total control of government again. “We couldn’t have nuked it,” McConnell will answer, noting that it would have taken 50 votes to change the rules and Republican centrists like Collins and Murkowski were strongly opposed. He just didn’t have the numbers. To which nationalists will say that that’s exactly the point — the GOP will always have too many weak links to really MAGA. Fun times for the party ahead.