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This could be a really long government shutdown

The game of chicken between Trump and Democrats, explained.

President Trump Meets With Nancy Pelosi And Chuck Schumer At White House
President Donald Trump argues about border security with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as Vice President Mike Pence sits nearby in the Oval Office on December 11, 2018.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The notion that Democrats and Republicans can come together during a partial government shutdown and negotiate a deal that President Donald Trump would sign made Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) erupt into incredulous laughter.

“No!” exclaimed Sanford, even before the government had officially shuttered in part on Friday night.

“To the average person out there — when I talk to people at home — they say this is about personal will more than it is about bigger ideas,” Sanford said. “Sure, we have differences about the wall, but this is about Trump’s ego — that’s what this is about.”

Trump and Congress are at an impasse. Roughly 25 percent of the federal government shut down Friday night, including agencies like the Department of Justice, Interior, and most contentiously, the Department of Homeland Security, which controls construction on the southern border.

On Friday, Trump warned on Twitter that it could be a “shutdown that will last for a very long time.” And he could be right.

By Wednesday lawmakers were no closer to a deal with Trump than the week before. Republican leaders say Democrats have to negotiate with Trump to end the shutdown. Over the weekend Trump hosted a meeting at the White House that did not include either of the two top Democratic leaders. Instead, conservative hardliners were in attendance. By Monday most lawmakers had gone home for the holidays, while Trump tweeted he was staying in the White House.

The deadlock has moved past just border security policy. This is about politics. Funding the border wall is as much a personal victory for Trump as blocking funding for the wall is for Democrats. The political incentives to compromise are slim, and Trump doesn’t appear interested in negotiating.

“The president needs to decide he’d like to actually lead, and to lead requires compromise. And if not, we are going to have a long shutdown,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said.

The longest government shutdown began in December of 1995, and lasted 21 days through the holidays. It was part of a policy debate between then-President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich over cutting government spending. But Trump’s fight is fundamentally different, and it’s possible this one will outlast the ’95 fight.

Republicans have already shown their cards

Trump wants a down payment on his border wall, and that appears to be as far as his game plan goes. There’s no great negotiating strategy at play here. Trump has shown all his cards — and Republicans have too.

In the span of two weeks, Trump has held every position on this portion of government spending. He said he would be “proud” of shutting down the government over border wall funding, then signaled that he’d accept a short-term spending bill that funded the government at current levels — essentially kicking the border wall fight down the road. Now he has doubled down on blaming Democrats for bringing the government to a partial shutdown.

But a large swath of the Republican congressional conference has shown a willingness to pass a spending bill that doesn’t include funding for the wall. The Senate passed a short-term spending bill Wednesday that didn’t fund the wall, with bipartisan support. Trump said he wouldn’t sign it. So with pressure to heed to the president’s demands, the House passed a different funding bill Thursday, with only Republican support, that included $5.7 billion for the wall, that can’t pass the Senate.

In other words, there are enough votes in both the House and Senate among both Democrats and Republicans to pass a short-term spending bill without funding the border wall.

“I want immigration reform, and border security has to be an integral part of that, not on its own,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) said of his opposition to funding the border wall in the government spending package. That’s also the Democrats’ position.

The issue is that hardline conservatives, who have little interest in compromise continue to have Trump’s ear. Even an offer from Vice President Mike Pence, who came to Capitol Hill Friday to broker a deal, fell short. His suggestion — $1.6 billion in wall funding — which Democrats previously signaled openness to, saw push back from hardline House Republicans. So Congress is stuck.

As a result, Democrats have little incentive to come to the negotiating table on this issue. After all, they’ve offered Trump money for the border wall in the past in exchange for broader immigration reforms. Then, it was a lot more than $5 billion too, only to see Trump blow up negotiations for even more hardline demands, like cutting legal immigration levels.

“Imagine how frustrated I was months ago when a big bipartisan group of senators reach a deal, which we were convinced he would accept,” Coons said. That proposal gave $25 billion for the border wall in exchange for protections for young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. “He turned that down. He didn’t just turn it down. He lobbied against it personally.”

Hours before the shutdown deadline, Trump met with Republican senators reportedly without an end game. He tried to convince senators to nuke a longstanding Senate rule that requires 60 votes to pass a spending bill, and pass border wall funding with just Republican support — a conservative pipe dream that doesn’t have enough support to actually happen.

This isn’t a policy debate between Democrats and Republicans, and Trump doesn’t look interested in compromise.

The politics of the border wall aren’t conducive to compromise

The border wall is popular with Trump’s base, which is a large part of why he’s adamant about fighting for it.

But it isn’t popular, overall — and shutting down the government over the wall isn’t, either.

According to a poll from National Public Radio/Marist last week, only 36 percent of Americans said the border wall was worth shutting down the government. Roughly two-thirds of Republicans side with Trump on this issue, whereas overall, support for the border wall hasn’t topped 40 percent. Democrats are listening to their base too, and for them blocking the border wall is the most tangible show of resistance to Trump’s hardline immigration agenda.

Democrats will also hold the House majority in just a matter of days — meaning they feel their negotiating position will only get stronger the longer they wait.

So far Trump is only doubling down. He told reporters he thinks federal workers “understand what’s happening. They want border security. The people of this country want border security.”

But at least one union leader, Tony Reardon, who is the president of the National Treasury Employees Union — one of the biggest unions representing government employees — disagrees.

“I’ve been dismayed and frankly angered by suggestions that they shouldn’t have financial concern, that they signed up for disruptions in their lives,” Reardon told reporters.

This will be a game of chicken between Democrats and Trump. If Democrats can stick together in withholding votes for Trump’s border wall, the president will eventually be forced to cave — or risk telling Border Patrol or TSA officers that their paychecks will have to wait a little bit longer.

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