Wash­ing­ton’s bat­tle of wall and wills

As the US gov­ern­ment shut­down nears its third week, Alan Fram ex­am­ines how the dead­lock might be bro­ken

Hawke's Bay Today - - World -

Some­how, some day, the dead­lock be­tween US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and con­gres­sional Democrats that’s shut­tered fed­eral agen­cies for a near-record 20 days will end.

The real ques­tions are when, how and who will be crowned the win­ner in pub­lic opin­ion polls and ul­ti­mately by vot­ers.

Things got bleaker this week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Trump at a fiery White House meet­ing that Democrats would not bow to his de­mand for US$5.7 bil­lion ($8.4b) to start build­ing a wall along the bor­der with Mex­ico. Trump slammed his hand on the ta­ble and stormed out, Democrats said. Trump said he calmly left the room, say­ing, “Bye-bye”.

Here’s a look at how the im­passe might be re­solved:

What’s the eas­i­est so­lu­tion?

None is easy. Trump’s con­ser­va­tive base strongly backs his fight for wall money, even if it has meant a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down. Democrats’ lib­eral stal­warts just as ar­dently op­pose giv­ing in.

Trump and Demo­cratic lead­ers have been so stead­fast that each would risk re­bel­lion by sup­port­ers if they agreed to some­thing viewed as a ca­pit­u­la­tion.

What’s the like­li­est way out? In­creas­ingly some peo­ple think that could be for Trump to de­clare a na­tional emer­gency.

By law, that could give him au­thor­ity to use some money in the mil­i­tary’s bud­get for con­struc­tion projects for the wall.

It’s a tac­tic that could let each side claim a par­tial vic­tory and move on.

Trump could ar­gue he did se­cure money for the wall, his most mem­o­rable cam­paign pledge, and over­came Demo­cratic ob­jec­tions. Democrats could say they didn’t give in and they could take le­gal ac­tion to try to block the move, claim­ing Trump had ex­ceeded his au­thor­ity by stretch­ing the mean­ing of emer­gency. Trump could de­cide to fi­nally sign bills re­open­ing the gov­ern­ment.

Leav­ing the White House yes­ter­day to visit the south­west­ern bor­der, Trump strongly sug­gested he would take that route. “I have the ab­so­lute right to de­clare a na­tional emer­gency,” he told re­porters. He added: “If I have to, I will. I have no doubt about it.”

The White House has be­gun lay­ing the ground­work, in­clud­ing search­ing for un­used money in the Army Corps of En­gi­neers bud­get, two peo­ple with knowl­edge of the prepa­ra­tions said yes­ter­day.

Trump has re­port­edly urged the Army Corps to de­ter­mine how fast con­tracts could be signed and whether con­struc­tion could be­gin within 45 days. Why not just do it?

Plenty of peo­ple on both sides hate the idea, and its le­gal­ity in this in­stance is ques­tion­able.

Some Repub­li­cans say strength­en­ing bor­der in­fra­struc­ture is not the mil­i­tary’s job and they op­pose si­phon­ing de­fence dol­lars for that pur­pose. Many Repub­li­cans worry that by stretch­ing the def­i­ni­tion of “emer­gency”, Trump opens the door to a fu­ture Demo­cratic pres­i­dent cir­cum­vent­ing law­mak­ers in ways the GOP would op­pose.

Democrats would con­sider the move a fresh ex­am­ple of Trump abus­ing his au­thor­ity as Pres­i­dent. They say it would be a ploy to by­pass Congress and that there’s no emer­gency on the bor­der, where the num­ber of il­le­gal cross­ings has fallen in re­cent years.

While the law doesn’t clearly de­fine a na­tional emer­gency, some ex­perts say a dec­la­ra­tion here would be un­war­ranted.

“The idea was that the ex­ec­u­tive would have these pow­ers on a lim­ited ba­sis for true emer­gen­cies,” said An­drew Boyle, who stud­ies pres­i­den­tial emer­gency pow­ers at the Bren­nan Cen­tre for Jus­tice, which is af­fil­i­ated with New York Uni­ver­sity.

He said declar­ing a na­tional emer­gency at the bor­der would be “clearly in bad faith”.

Polls show the pub­lic blames Trump more than Democrats for the shut­down. Will Repub­li­cans fold?

Some GOP law­mak­ers have had enough, es­pe­cially in the Se­nate. Re­flect­ing that, a group of GOP sen­a­tors has talked to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell and White House of­fi­cials about forg­ing a com­pro­mise, though that seems an up­hill bat­tle. Ul­ti­mately Mc­Connell, a tough par­ti­san also renowned for end­ing bat­tles by cut­ting bi­par­ti­san deals, will de­cide the GOP’s path. It will take more than a few Repub­li­can de­fec­tions for Mc­Connell to aban­don Trump.

Ever since Trump re­versed him­self and turned down an agree­ment to avoid the shut­down be­fore Christ­mas, Mc­Connell has stepped aside, say­ing Trump and Democrats should bar­gain.

Democrats have been try­ing to pres­sure Mc­Connell, quot­ing his past ridicule of shut­downs and cit­ing the dam­age the cur­rent one is in­flict­ing on vot­ers.

With hun­dreds of thou­sands of fed­eral work­ers due to miss their first pay cheques to­day and con­stituents com­plain­ing about los­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices, pres­sure will only in­ten­sify.

“I think pub­lic sen­ti­ment weigh­ing in on his mem­bers” will change his mind, Pelosi said in a brief in­ter­view. “He’s a leg­is­la­tor.”

What about Democrats?

They’ve shown no out­ward signs of di­vi­sions. If any­thing, Trump’s re­cent ac­tions — leav­ing Thurs­day’s ne­go­ti­at­ing ses­sion, seem­ing to blame Democrats for the re­cent deaths of two Gu­atemalan chil­dren in US cus­tody — have united them more.

“Democrats’ re­ac­tion ranges from an­gry to en­raged,” said Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ger­ald Con­nolly.

Is there a deal to be had?

That seems in­creas­ingly un­likely. Se­na­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham and other Repub­li­cans have ex­plored a com­pro­mise that might in­clude bor­der se­cu­rity money plus help­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of young im­mi­grants who ar­rived in the US il­le­gally as chil­dren to stay. But Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and Gra­ham re­ported no progress after a meet­ing yes­ter­day.

Democrats know a deal with Trump could alien­ate lib­er­als, and are loathe to show that they would fold in fu­ture con­fronta­tions.

They also don’t trust Trump. Pelosi said he has moved the goal­posts so often that “pretty soon these goal posts won’t even be in the sta­dium”.

PHO­TOS / AP

Sup­port­ers of the bor­der wall were out in force as Don­ald Trump ar­rived at McAllen Miller In­ter­na­tional Air­port in McAllen, Texas, yes­ter­day.

Don­ald Trump

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