Put up or shut down: Trump threatens government shutdown over border wall funding

President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd while speaking at a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Summer is almost over, September is fast-approaching and that can mean only one thing: Congress has until October 1 to pass a series of spending bills or the government will shut down.

During his rally in Phoenix, Ariz. last night, President Donald Trump welcomed the idea of a government shutdown if Congress refuses to fund a wall along the southwest border and deprives him of fulfilling another campaign promise.

The crowd erupted in chants of "Build that wall!" as Trump hit a popular refrain from 2016, border security.

"Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it. But believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall," Trump said. "We're going to have our wall. We're going to get our wall."

This isn't the first time Trump has threatened to shut down the government over border security funding. But a series of unusual circumstances have increased the probability that the Republican-controlled Congress and the president may not be able to reach an agreement.

Back in April when Congress was up against a deadline to pass a short-term spending bill, Trump threatened not to sign the bill if it did not include funding for the wall. Only a few days before the deadline, Trump backed down and Congress did not appropriate wall funds. But he told his supporters that the fight was not over.

The president's priorities have not changed since April, but the political landscape has. Not only are Democrats united in their opposition to the border wall, Trump is now facing increasingly fractured support among Republican Senators who will determine whether or not the border wall gets built.


Between Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and Trump, what is being set up ahead of the October 1 fiscal deadline is essentially a three-way game of chicken with a 30-foot wall in the middle.

In recent weeks Trump has found himself at odds with a number of Senate Republicans. In Phoenix, Trump "did not mention any names," but indirectly attacked Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. Trump has repeatedly attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) who has yet to deliver the votes needed for a majority legislative victory for the president.

Despite the reported tensions between Trump and McConnell, the White House issued a statement on Wednesday saying the two "remain united on many shared priorities, including ... constructing a southern border wall, and other important issues."

Last week, after an equivocal response to the violence in Charlottesville, a number of Republican senators began distancing themselves from the president, including Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Bob Corker of Tennessee, as well as South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.

Trump also needs buy-in from Senate Democrats to get any spending bill passed.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) previously said he would risk a government shutdown over the border wall funding. On Wednesday Schumer issued a new statement warning, "If the President pursues this path, against the wishes of both Republicans and Democrats, as well as the majority of the American people, he will be heading towards a government shutdown which nobody will like and which won’t accomplish anything."

Unlike the president's decision to back off his shutdown threat in April, Steve Bell, veteran Hill staffer and senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, believes Trump will not change course this time around.

"I expect that he would like a fight over the wall," Bell said, explaining how Trump could explain the shutdown to his base. "I think he would be willing to say if this irresponsible Congress will not protect our borders ... then we're going to continue draining the swamp by cutting off its money."

Bell added that it is not only a "real possibility" but "a probability" that Trump may refuse to sign even a short-term government spending bill, a continuing resolution, if he does not get money for the wall.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, noted that for months for months the chances of a government shutdown appeared to be non-existent. "But to see the bizarre situation of infighting within the [Republican] party reaching such a level ... clearly, that's now a real possibility."

Donald Trump's unpredictability as a leader and negotiator has also raised the stakes and added an element of uncertainty about how far the president is willing to take the threat of a shutdown and how far others are willing to go to fund the wall.

"It's a lot harder to see how one negotiates out of this situation," MacGuineas said.


The last time there was a government shutdown was 2013 with a divided government. The idea that Republicans could control essentially all the levers of power in Washington and still have a shutdown would deliver a strong message politically.

In itself, a government shutdown is "a huge mismanagement of government and its a sign of a very broken process," MacGuineas explained. The idea that a shutdown could occur when one party controls the House, the Senate and the White House "would be a profound statement about the disarray within that party."

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That disarray has been apparent in recent weeks. After the Senate failed to pass a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, President Trump began more aggressively attacking fellow Republicans, a sign that the "chasm between the Republican majority in the Senate and the president" is deepening, Bell noted.

So far, the personal attacks on other conservatives have not hurt Trump, at least not among his core backers, who support him more than ever. Trump has also targeted senators like McConnell, McCain and Flake, who now have the lowest approval ratings in the Senate.

But the personal attacks haven't earned the president much good will within the party he needs to govern.

"If it is not an adversarial relationship between the Senate majority and the president, it is certainly one in which neither side is going to go out of their way to do any great favors for the other," Bell noted.

That dynamic has helped change each side's political calculus as far as what position they will stake out ahead of a possible government shutdown.


Last month Trump did get a win when the House of Representatives approved a spending bill with a down payment of roughly $1.6 billion for the wall.

The funding is still about a billion dollars shy of what President Trump initially requested in his 2018 budget and would cover the construction of 74 miles of fencing and other barriers along the southwest border with $38 million allocated for planning the construction of the wall itself.

The final cost of the wall is still up in the air. Trump initially campaigned on the promise that the wall would cost around $12 billion and the government of Mexico would pay for it. DHS later estimated that it would more likely run in the range of $21.6 billion. Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee produced an estimate based on average per-mile costs and came up with a $66.9 billion price tag.

Some senators have been pressing DHS to produce a detailed estimate on the cost of the wall, but it is not publicly available. Part of the problem with the estimate stems from the fact that the Trump administration has not settled on a wall prototype. Between four and eight companies were scheduled to receive contracts and begin work on the prototypes this summer, but according to reports that construction could be delayed until November.

Republicans in border states have also questioned the wisdom of Trump's proposed 30-foot wall. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has pushed for better technology to monitor the border, and said recently that for certain areas of the southwest, the wall "makes absolutely no sense."

The top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) issued a statement on Wednesday urging the president to back down from his government shutdown threat while calling the wall "foolish, costly and useless."

The top Republican appropriator, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi has historically opposed shutting down the government and is working towards a package of spending bills that can earn bipartisan support.

The subcommittee that oversees appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security has yet to mark up a bill and it is unclear whether the issue of border wall funding is slowing things down.

Sen. John Boozman (Okla.), the top Republican on that subcommittee, also signaled that there is little appetite for a government shutdown. Boozman's office noted that the senator will work to ensure "the government and the Department continue operations as efficiently as possible."

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