The dust has finally begun to settle after Donald Trump’s Fail Wall was broken over the knee of Speaker Nancy Pelosi like so much soggy fiberboard, with spectacular assistance from furloughed workers across the spectrum. It’s time to take stock of what the next three weeks may bring. Dancing around the bonfire of Trump’s vanity made for some wonderful weekend exercise, but it’s over now, and there is no guarantee that what happens next will be anywhere near as pleasant.
The legislation signed by Trump on Friday after his ignominious Rose Garden capitulation kicked the shutdown can down the road to February 15, exactly 16 days from now. In an effort to cobble together some kind of palatable deal, congressional leadership has assembled an ad hoc committee of 17 Republicans and Democrats who will begin meeting today.
This committee includes Democrats like Senators John Tester, Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy, along with Republican Senators Richard Shelby, Roy Blount and Shelley Moore Capito. House members will include Republican Representatives Steven Palazzo, Tom Graves and Chuck Fleischmann, along with Democratic Representatives Barbara Lee, Nita Lowey and David Price. The committee’s leadership from both chambers all have long experience in appropriations, and a New York Times headline has dubbed them collectively as the “Dealmakers.”
The battle lines seem plainly drawn, but appearances deceive. Thanks in large part to the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, the Democrats’ main united demand remains no funding for Trump’s preposterous border wall. There is reason to believe they will hold to this line in the forthcoming negotiations, but as ever, there is plenty of room to fudge the edges. A wall, after all, does not necessarily need to be made from concrete.
Before this latest shutdown ended, a group of House Democrats was putting together an offer that would spend Trump’s wall money on also-spurious measures like more border agents and “smart wall” technologies. Odds are better than good this proposal, or a version of it, will reappear during these new negotiations. Senator Durbin, one of the committee’s Democratic leaders, helped write the DREAM Act in 2001, so we should expect protections for the “Dreamers” to be involved as well.
The tea leaves are well and truly scrambled on this one, but if I had to make a guess, I believe this committee is going to emerge in 16 days with a deal that will be greeted as “reasonable” and “responsible” by the Beltway press, even as it sets the heads of base voters from both sides on fire. In the end, however, I expect that deal, or any deal, to come to absolutely nothing because Donald Trump remains Donald Trump, period, end of file.
The Democrats will likely offer Trump billions in border security measures to address a crisis that only exists in the over-boiled egg perched beneath the president’s hairdo. Their rationale — better to govern than fight — may make sense to some in theory, but for the fact that the times absolutely require a fight, and not a go-along-to-get-along offer that rewards the wolf for slaughtering the sheep.
With a couple of notable exceptions, the Democrats on this committee are not known to be fighters. I believe they will not offer funding for Trump’s actual Gulf of Mexico-to-Gulf of California wall, but the package they do come up with will be wall-ish enough to, they’ll hope, garner a presidential signature and allow Trump to escape the trap he so foolishly laid for himself. This we call “governing” by the “dealmakers.”
It is worthwhile to note that Senator Tester began this week by announcing he would be in favor of giving Trump at least some funding for his silly wall. “I think to take that off the table entirely,” he said, “would be not the best direction to go.” The involvement of Democrats like him on this committee makes the ground considerably softer for actual border wall proposals than it was when the whole argument was the Nancy Pelosi Show, despite the presence of proven political warriors like Representative Lee, whose long record on matters of conscience and social justice is beyond question. She is but one voice among 17, however, and the pressure to cut a deal will be huge.
Because of Senator Durbin’s deep involvement in the inception of the DREAM Act, I also believe the deal the Democrats will ultimately offer will include a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, who have spent years now being used as unwilling ping pong balls batted around by the likes of the Freedom Caucus and Trump’s in-house fascist, Stephen Miller. It would be sweet mercy and true justice if a way could be found to spare these 800,000 people a life spent wondering if a ringing doorbell is announcing their imminent deportation.
A deal that combines increased border security and Dreamer protections would avoid another shutdown or an emergency declaration, and end once and for all the cruel existential crisis being endured by the Dreamers. However, such a deal validates not only institutions like Immigration and Customs Enforcement but the entire idea that an emergency at the border actually exists. Even with Dreamer protections included, it will not sit well with the Democratic base, with progressives or with anyone who believes that Trump deserves to get nothing for the debacle he created so he could snuggle up with his white nationalist base. Genuine protections for the Dreamers will be what ultimately sells it, but there will be definite grumbling.
Which brings us to the committee’s Republicans, several of whom have been border wall advocates for years. In a Trumpless world where this shutdown calamity never took place, the Democratic deal I have described would probably be laughed out of the room by the GOP. But Trump is real, the shutdown happened, and the political fallout is coming down on the Republicans like a rain of steel girders. The question they face is not so much if they can accept a deal from the Democrats, but if they can convince Trump to take it and avoid the political disaster that will surely come if the government is shut down again.
Thanks to their feckless fealty to the Orange Menace, the Republicans on this committee have precious few cards to play. If they take the hard line Trump and his base wants them to — The wall or nothing! No amnesty! MAGA! — the Democrats have only to shrug, show the world the “reasonable” offer that was turned down and wait for Trump to put the country in a blender again. Once the grinding stops for the second time, the soupy remains of the Republican Party would probably agree to anything just to make the pain stop and would probably even find the 20 GOP Senate votes needed for a veto override along the way.
Yet even this possibility comes with its own set of gaping holes, thanks to the true nature of the modern Republican Party. This mess is not completely Trump’s fault. Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and all the other congressional GOP collaborators let this happen in broad daylight without so much as a blink, and continue even now to have about as much compassion for those affected by the shutdown as a hammerhead shark has for its prey.
For evidence, look no further than the plight of some 500,000 federal contractors who were badly damaged financially by the shutdown. While federal workers will get back pay for the time they were involuntarily furloughed, no such compensation is forthcoming for the contractors without specific legislation to earmark the funds. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith has introduced legislation to do precisely this, and it is backed by more than 20 of her Democratic colleagues. As of this printing, however, not one single Republican has offered support for her bill. These are the kind of people Senator Durbin and his Democratic comrades on the committee will be dealing with, a fact that does not bathe one in optimism.
Still, devoid of empathy as they are, these Republicans are petrified of political blowback. The government shutdown was calamitous for the Republican Party’s image, another would be worse, and the party leadership knows this. An emergency declaration would be equally ruinous, and the Republicans know this as well. Trump, however, cannot be trusted in any way to reach a similar conclusion. Even if he does, there is no reason to believe he will give a damn. He has as much use for the Republicans who carry his water as a dog has for a fudge recipe. If they don’t get him his border wall funding, odds are better than good he will bus-tire them, again, and take his chances with his base, again.
Trump is almost inevitably bound to use any deal that is an actual compromise as rhetorical toilet paper. Why? The president of the United States is an anthropomorphic Furby who faithfully repeats the last words he hears, and these days the last words he hears on immigration matters usually pass the lips of Stephen Miller, whose entire political philosophy is centered around the belief that vanilla yogurt isn’t white enough.
Bottom line: Expect a national emergency declaration and/or another shutdown, because Trump’s skull is thicker than the wall he dreams of, and the lessons just don’t seem to take.