GOP messaging lost in shutdown
Trump picks wall fight over touting Republican agenda
WASHINGTON — Republicans are ending the 115th Congress in an all-toofamiliar spot: standing on the sidelines while President Donald Trump picks a fight they wanted to avoid as he ignores what they consider major conservative accomplishments.
On back-to-back days this month, Trump hosted large bipartisan gatherings that were meant to be valedictory, year-end statements of success with an $867 billion farm bill and a sweeping overhaul of federal prison laws. For a Congress that struggled to find significant legislation with sweeping Democratic and Republican support, these bills provided a road map for how things might work in the next two years of divided government.
Instead, Trump used each ceremony as an opportunity to denounce Democrats for opposing his multibillion-dollar demands for taxpayer money to fund a southern border wall, launching Washington into its third partial shutdown this year.
“It’s possible that we’ll have a shutdown. I would say the chances are probably very good because I don’t think Democrats care so much about maybe this issue,” Trump said Dec. 21 at the signing ceremony for the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill that his son-inlaw, Jared Kushner, negotiated with Democrats.
And this shutdown could last well into the new year as Trump digs in for a fight for a wall he repeatedly promised Mexico would finance. Republican lawmakers, unable to deliver the president’s top priority despite all-GOP control of government for two years, mostly hid from the spotlight.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have not been seen in the Capitol since Dec. 22, the first day of the partial shutdown. Neither chamber is slated to hold a legislative session until after New Year’s Day, just as Democrats take over the House after a midterm thumping that gave them a net gain of 40 seats.
Neither GOP leader has tried to back up Trump with the sort of news conference or partisan vote that demonstrates commitment to the cause — which has been the usual course of action for the president’s Capitol Hill allies in the periodic shutdowns of the past 25 years.
Trump tweeted Saturday that he was “in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security.”
But there has been little direct contact between either side during the stalemate, and Trump did not ask Republicans to keep Congress in session.
It’s an embarrassing end to a two-year run for McConnell and Ryan. For months they respectively called this the “most successful Congress” for Republicans and claimed it set “a record pace” for legislative production.
Democrats fiercely object to those assertions and note that the biggest GOP victories, a $1.5 trillion tax cut plan and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, passed on simplemajority votes with very little bipartisan support.
There were some other signs of progress, ranging from a massive package to try to combat opioid addiction and revamping existing laws overseeing aviation and waterways.
But almost none of these gains has held the attention of the person Republicans most rely on to convey their message nationwide: the president.
Time and again, Trump has paid lip service to these issues that Republicans consider wins and instead has focused on his demands for a border wall. Early this year, after the tax cuts took affect, GOP leaders winced as Trump focused on other issues and saw public approval for the legislation fade away.
By the fall, as Trump held rally after rally ahead of the midterm elections, GOP leaders pleaded with the president to focus his remarks on the falling unemployment rate and the skyhigh stock market. Instead, Trump devoted the large majority of his speeches to a caravan of Central American migrants walking thousands of miles toward the California border, alleging without foundation that the group of mostly women and children were criminals.
In budget brinkmanship, Republicans once again hold themselves hostage
And in their last days of full Republican control of Congress, the shutdown blotted out attention from any other issue.
For years McConnell has enjoyed hosting a long yearend news conference at which he declares his biggest wins and lays out his goals for the year ahead.
Normally, that would have happened at the end of last week, after the Senate unanimously approved on Dec. 19 a short-term funding plan that would have kept the government fully open into early February.
That same day, Ryan gave a farewell address in the Library of Congress, believing that Trump agreed with the strategy to fund the government and fight for the wall next month.
Instead, the next morning, Trump called Ryan and other Republicans to the White House. He rejected their plan and was ready to fight even if it meant a shutdown.
McConnell never held his valedictory news conference, and what was probably Ryan’s last moment on the House floor came Saturday evening when he gaveled the empty chamber shut, the last legislative session of 2018 going out with a whimper.
The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol remains quiet as a partial government shutdown continues into its second week.