clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is the government going to shut down again in February? Here are 4 scenarios.

The government is reopened for three weeks. What happens next?

President Donald Trump and congressional leaders have three weeks to make a deal before facing another government shutdown deadline.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

The longest government shutdown in US history is almost over, and the federal government will be fully operational again — at least for the next three weeks.

The relief is temporary. The deal cut by President Trump and congressional leaders to end the shutdown funds several government agencies only through February 15, with the understanding that Democrats and Republicans will keep searching for a compromise that would give Trump the win he wants on border security while also providing protections for vulnerable migrants, as Democrats demand.

The next funding cliff is not that far off, and the lesson of the past two years has been that it is extremely difficult, maybe impossible, for Democrats and the president to make a deal on immigration.

So where will we find ourselves the day after Valentine’s Day? Celebrating a wall-for-DREAMers deal and the calming of the immigration debate? Or on the verge of yet another partial government shutdown so soon after the last one ended?

Let’s run through the possibilities, starting with the most optimistic and therefore probably least likely scenario.

Scenario 1: a big, beautiful immigration deal is reached and this fight is over

The White House and congressional leaders could find some kind of satisfactory compromise that gives Trump the money he wants for border security while also giving Democrats enough in return to protect vulnerable migrants. In this scenario, an immigration deal is reached, a new spending bill passes before February 15, and everybody moves on to fight about other issues.

There are a lot of good reasons to believe that won’t happen.

Trump and Democrats (the two important parties here) have been searching for an immigration trade for more than a year now. The president wants his wall — or, at least, enough border security funding that he can claim to have gotten the wall — to deliver on his signature campaign promise. Democrats want protections for hundreds of thousands of migrants whose legal status Trump has put at risk.

So the basic contours of any potential deal have always been clear: funding for border security in exchange for giving legal relief to people protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and other migrants who receive special protected status now threatened by Trump. The White House had been floating a scaled-down version of that plan to end the current shutdown — three years of legal protections for wall funding — but Democrats wouldn’t bite. They will still probably want more than temporary relief for migrants if they are going to give the president money for border fencing.

The real problems have always been legal immigration — the hardliners in the White House want legal immigration cuts; Democrats are generally opposed — and Trump’s unreliability. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer thought he had a Wall-for-DACA deal with Trump last year, only for the president to renege once immigration hawks on his staff got a word in.

All of this remains true as the two sides sit down and try to work toward a brand new immigration deal before February 15. Maybe the trauma of the long shutdown will be enough to shake everybody loose and help them find common ground. But don’t bet on it.

In that case, we would have no immigration deal by February 15 and another shutdown looming. A few things could happen at that point.

Scenario 2: no deal and the government shuts down again

If Trump doesn’t get the immigration deal he wants, he could do the same thing he did in December and threatened to veto any new government spending bill until he does get what he wants. Unless Republican leaders are willing to defy the president and pass a spending bill against his wishes — something they were not willing to do to avoid the most recent shutdown — the government would shut down again without a new funding plan passing by February 15.

That would put the government right back where it was a few days ago: hundreds of thousands of workers furloughed, services suspended, contractors going without pay, and no resolution in sight in the standoff between Trump and Democratic leaders. How long it would last is anybody’s guess — the president has talked before about a shutdown that lasts for months, maybe even years.

Trump might be reluctant to close the government again, though, especially so soon after opening it back up. He took the bulk of the blame for the most recent shutdown, and he probably would again, given his long public record of saying that he would be proud to shut down the government to get what he wants.

Scenario 3: no deal, but the government stays open and Trump declares a border emergency to get his wall

In that case, Trump has another card to play: He could declare a national emergency in order to circumvent Congress and try to commandeer the federal funding he needs to get his wall.

The president alluded to this possibility when announcing the deal Friday to reopen the government for now: If he and Congress can’t cut a deal, “I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency.”

In this scenario, the government wouldn’t shut down again. Congress could just pass a new spending bill and Trump could sign it, knowing he has this trump card, a course his allies have suggested before. But the immigration fight would escalate in the courts.

Trump has been reluctant to actually take the emergency declaration route, though he keeps threatening it, seemingly because enough people have told him it’s legally perilous. As Vox’s Emily Stewart previously reported:

Bruce Ackerman, a law professor at Yale University, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times this month that Trump cannot declare an emergency at the border, arguing that Trump’s actions would be illegal, and they would force the armed forces tasked with carrying out his orders to choose between abiding by the commander-in-chief’s wishes and committing a federal crime.

“The president of the United States has a constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Ackerman said in a subsequent phone interview. “It is unconstitutional for him to take care to violate the laws of the United States.”

Some have pointed to a Korean War-era court case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, in which the Supreme Court ruled that President Harry Truman’s attempt to nationalize US steel mills during a strike in the Korean War was unconstitutional.

But others — people with the president’s ear — are more bullish on Trump’s authority to declare such an emergency and win in the courts. Trump might decide that rather than hazard another shutdown and the risky blame game that comes with it, he’ll simply keep the government and move his wall fight to a new arena.

Scenario 4: no deal, but the government stays open and Trump doesn’t declare an emergency

Then again, Trump might get cold feet about another shutdown and about making the emergency declaration. There is a lot of risk in both courses. Instead, he could stamp and pout but ultimately decide to sign another government spending bill and just keep railing against Democrats for being inadequately concerned about the (greatly exaggerated) crisis at the border.

That might sound like a long shot, given how invested Trump is in the border fight. But that’s more or less what just happened: Trump shut down the government to get his wall, Democrats refused to budge, the public blamed Trump and even his base started to turn against him, so Trump caved and reopened the government without getting any meaningful concessions from Democrats.

This shutdown waltz can feel like a record skipping, the same beats playing over and over. Come back in February when the needle drops again, and we’ll see what happens next.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.