President Donald Trump sought to emphasize unity during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, going so far as to say he was interested in breaking “decades of political stalemate.” But, notably, he didn’t mention that the government just came out of a 35-day shutdown, that another one could happen very soon, and that neither Congress nor Trump seem to have an idea to break a continued impasse on immigration.
His decision to skirt the issue didn’t go unnoticed among the members of Congress listening.
“He’s running away from the responsibility there, and he knows he’s taken a hit in the minds of Americans. So in a sense, I guess I’m not surprised that he didn’t mention it in the speech,” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX), the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told Vox.
As Trump did note, there are just 10 days left for Congress to approve legislation that will fund the government in order to avert yet another shutdown. His Tuesday speech both avoided responsibility for the past stalemate and provided no clear road map for preventing a future one.
“The president tried to be uplifting at several points in his remarks, he had several guests that lifted all of us to our feet ... those are inspiring moments,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said. “But he dedicated large chunks of his speech to fairly sharply divisive topics in the way he characterized them, like illegal immigration and border security.”
Trump has just over a week to reach a deal with Democrats or all his talk of unity will be just that — talk.
Trump didn’t win over any Democrats with his approach
Significantly, Trump still talked about how important it is to have a border wall or physical barriers along the southern border — though he again clarified that could mean steel slats in his Tuesday speech.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still resolute that there will be no funding for a wall in a bipartisan border security funding package currently being negotiated between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in a conference committee tasked with finding a border security deal by February 15.
“I feel that we’re close” to a deal, said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who sits on the conference committee. “My personal feeling? It’s not going to be what the president wants. It’s not going to be $5.7 billion on the wall.”
Democrats are instead pushing for billions of dollars to beef up existing ports of entry, increase agents and personnel, and upgrade technology to stop the flow of drugs into the US.
Trump, however, is still fixated on the wall. While he signaled there was limited time for any agreement to be reached, he didn’t say whether he would be open to compromising with Democrats to avoid another future shutdown. While he had once previously bragged about being “proud” to own a shutdown, his remarks on Tuesday seemed to ignore the fact that one had happened at all, not to mention whether he’d consider a concession to prevent an impasse from happening again.
Some Democrats interpreted this as evidence that Senate Republicans are telling Trump to pump the brakes on another shutdown.
“It’s true he didn’t specifically say, ‘I’m going to shut down the government,’ because I don’t think he has the support of the Republican Party,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think he tried to sort of walk that line in making his case. I think he was making his case not to Democrats [but] to Republicans that they should support his wall.”
But, as Jayapal and others pointed out, it doesn’t matter how many Republicans he can convince to be on his side now, because he also has to convince Pelosi in order for any deal to be reached.
“If he’s looking at $5.7 billion on just the wall, it’s not going to happen,” Cuellar told Vox. “I think we’re going to reach an agreement; everybody’s got to be a little flexible.”
Republican senators are sticking with Trump — but they don’t want another shutdown
Republicans lawmakers, for the most part, weren’t happy with the government shutdown. And they don’t want another one. But Trump’s occasional calls for unity in the State of Union helped obscure his still unwavering and divisive demands on border security.
Trump agreeing to reopen the government for three weeks late last month without a penny toward his border wall was a major concession. But since then, he hasn’t softened his position on immigration, nor has he ruled out taking extreme measures, like declaring a national emergency, to siphon money toward the border.
It’s a reality that’s made some Republicans nervous in recent weeks. But they’re still standing by him.
“I wish the president had ruled out shutdowns tonight — he didn’t — but he also did not say he was interested in another shutdown, which was positive,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said. “It was better than I think a lot of people expected.”
A stalemate over immigration has become the new normal in Congress.
“I don’t think he needed to address the shutdown. Everybody knows exactly where we are on that regard,” Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) told Vox.
But when pressed on whether coming out of a 35-day government shutdown reflected a “strong” state of the union, Risch demurred.
“I think we are done here,” he said.
The clock is ticking on a border security deal
Whether or not Trump wants to talk about it, a second shutdown could be upcoming if lawmakers don’t reach a border security deal by February 15.
If that were to happen, roughly 800,000 federal workers — and thousands more federal contractors — would once again face the prospect of going without pay until the stalemate is over, while dozens of agencies would have to activate their contingency plans yet again. Although lawmakers have been optimistic about the progress they’re making toward a potential deal, the wild card in all this is still Trump.
As Republicans have said over and over, whatever the final conference deal is, it needs to be something the president will ultimately sign. The bipartisan group of lawmakers working on a border security deal could very well find consensus, only to have the president threaten to veto the agreement, as he’s done for funding bills in the past. The uncertainty surrounding this issue was exceedingly evident on Tuesday.
“We are trying hard to do it. We’re close. Well, I don’t know how close we are. We are close to the deadline. I don’t know,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL).
While Trump has made it very clear that he still wants a wall, the State of the Union offered little guidance on any other compromises he would accept.