Shutdown watch: "We need a great barrier ... and we need the Democrats"

“Let’s be bipartisan, and let’s get it done,” Donald Trump exhorted as the federal government went into partial shutdown last night. In his brief address posted to Twitter, the president proclaimed the need for “a great barrier” to keep criminals and drugs out of the US. It came at the end of a day in which no progress was made at all, in part because the White House offered little insight into just how much Trump might be willing to accept:

“Call it a Democrat shutdown, call it whatever you want,” Trump said in a video released hours after the House and Senate adjourned for the night without a deal to avert the shutdown starting at midnight.

“Let’s work together, let’s be bipartisan and let’s get it done. The shutdown hopefully will not last long,” he added. …

Trump in his video warned of violent, criminal gangs infiltrating the U.S. through its southern border while calling for the Senate to approve a bill passed by House Republicans that would fund the rest of the government while including $5 billion for his proposed border wall.

“Our great country must have border security. We don’t want people coming in who aren’t supposed to be here,” Trump says in the video. “It’s very dangerous out there. Drugs are pouring in.”

In the video, Trump emphasizes that he wants a “great barrier,” a change of nomenclature from “wall” that appears to be a rhetorical concession. He also scoffs a bit at the distinction, saying that the only thing that will stop all these ills is “a wall, or a slat fence, or whatever you want to call it.” Trump had earlier suggested on Twitter that he’d be happy to call it a “steel slat barrier” if that made it easier to accept, calling the design “beautiful”:

Apart from the nomenclature, it’s the same argument that Trump made in the midterms. It didn’t pay off for Republicans, and Democrats insist that the midterm results show a mandate to oppose the wall. They had agreed to provide some non-wall-related border-security funding, and Republicans had agreed to it while under the impression that Trump would sign off on the CR, perhaps also mindful of the midterm results. Instead, Trump’s sticking to his guns, himself likely mindful that this is the last chance he’ll get for at least two years to get any funding for a wall, or steel slats.

So just how much money will it take to satisfy Trump on “border security” or a “slat fence”? That’s both a question and a definition in the latest edition of Shutdown Theater, which opened off-Broadway late last night. Despite Trump’s best efforts to cast this as a “Democratic shutdown,” as he did in the video again, he’s clearly the one making the demand and refusing to sign any funding bill without money for the wall. But just how much money would he accept, if Democrats are willing to sweeten the pot at all?

Roll Call reports this morning that, er … no one knows, and the White House isn’t saying. Negotiators from both parties are trying to find a “sweet spot” that won’t enrage the bases and will allow enough cover to get the final appropriation bill for FY2019 finished:

This is about the Republicans’ far-right flank and Democrats’ far-left faction. The former gets fired up by the notion of the concrete-and-steel “wall” candidate Trump sold them, and the latter is insulted and inflamed by it. A House-passed stopgap that included more than $5 billion for the border barrier did not include the words “wall” or “fencing” — or “slats,” for that matter. But the roadblock won’t be the actual bill text, it will be how both sides market any eventual agreement before both chambers can vote on it and it’s delivered to the White House — or Mar-a-Lago — for Trump’s signature. …

Schumer and Democrats have repeatedly floated the Senate-passed figure for the border barrier of $1.3 billion, part of a $1.6 billion “border security” proposal. House Minority Whip Steny B. Hoyer recently said this of that amount: “I think that can probably be agreed upon.”

Sanders told Roll Call Friday afternoon that Trump likely would drop his demand for $5 billion for the project, indicating there is a number between $1.6 billion and $5 billion that he would accept.

But White House officials have said that before. And they never give as much as a ballpark estimate of what their boss might settle for.

That’s a smart bargaining position in the short term. In a negotiation, the side that offers the first compromise usually loses. The problem with that strategy is that both sides use it, which is how we got to where we’re at today. However, any significant funds for a “slat fence” or “great barrier” would be a win for Trump, at least politically if not pragmatically. If he got a billion dollars, it’s still a billion more than Congress was willing to appropriate for the barrier before, even if it’s only a 4% down payment on the full cost of the wall. Given how much Congress used to spend on pork-barrel projects for the vanity of its members, that would be nothing more than a blip.

Trump wants to make the shutdown painful enough for Democrats to force them into coughing up at least a symbolic win. Chuck Schumer can probably afford to outwait him, though; when Democrats take over on January 3rd, the current House proposal will expire and Nancy Pelosi will pass a “clean” CR and force Mitch McConnell to shoot it down. Even if one’s willing to say that it’s a Democratic shutdown now for a refusal to take up the House bill, it will then become a GOP shutdown on January 4th for the same reason.

Maybe it will be worth it to Schumer and Pelosi to give Trump a brief and relatively cheap political win by tossing a billion or two into the kitty. Their base will get angry, but it’s another 22 months until the next election. Trump will undoubtedly give them plenty of material for hyperbolic political attacks during that period of time and the impact of a small concession now will barely register at that point. Or they might just play out the string and see how long Republicans will go before jumping in on a clean CR and a veto override to get the budget process back on track.

In fact, one has to wonder whether that is Trump’s strategy here. Nothing would remind voters of the necessity of a bull in the Beltway establishment china shop than Republicans and Democrats getting together to thwart the Man Of The People on his quest for national security on the southern border. That would make for one hell of a good re-election theme, right?

Update: I changed the subhed after realizing that a prepublication headline change had made it redundant.