WASHINGTON — Conservatives in Congress hate the proposed bipartisan spending bill to keep the government open, and yet they’re surrendering and paving the way for President Trump to sign it.
The deal, which funds a mere 55 miles of border fence and gives the Trump administration fewer beds than it wanted to detain undocumented immigrants, is no better than the deal Republicans could have had back in December before they shut down the government for 35 days.
But besides dealing a defeat to Trump, the agreement is forcing conservatives in Congress, particularly the once high-flying Freedom Caucus, to get used to a greatly diminished role in Washington.
“We don’t have leverage on this particular issue, because it obviously is going to be Democrat-led, both in the House and in the Senate, to get this done,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, told VICE News.
The conservative bomb-throwers who were so effective at derailing bipartisan agreements like this one even just months ago now seem resigned in this latest battle with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They sound deflated — sad, even — as they brace themselves to watch Trump take a mere $1.375 billion in wall funding, a fraction of the $5.7 billion he'd been demanding.
Their spirits are only buoyed by the thought that Trump will use the same executive powers they once blasted President Obama for using to ram their agenda through the White House and courts after the legislative branch roundly rejected it.
“I think the president will sign it. I think he will do so reluctantly, and then, obviously, he'll have to use executive actions to secure our border,” said Meadows, who contends that Trump has plenty of cash at his disposal as commander-in-chief to spend as he likes on securing the nation’s borders.
“I think we’ve sort of passed the point where we had leverage”
Like Meadows, most conservatives oppose the new numbers that a bipartisan group of top appropriators have agreed to, but they’re basically conceding they’ve been checkmated. There’s just not much they can do to stop it.
“I think we’ve sort of passed the point where we had leverage,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Republican with strong libertarian leanings, told VICE News while walking through the Capitol.
Massie, who has refused to join the House Freedom Caucus but often votes with them, says he sees the new dynamic himself but notices it’s only slowly sinking in for other conservatives across Capitol Hill.
“They’re still sort of pretending we have the same sort of leverage, but I think it disappeared on January 3 [when Pelosi was sworn in as speaker],” Massie said. “The leverage is gone.”
Massie says it was back in December when he saw this day coming where Trump would get rolled by Pelosi and the Democrats. That's why he'd called to convene a conference committee like the one that brokered this week’s compromise — when Republicans still controlled the House.
Recordings even came out this week that reveal House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy bashing the Freedom Caucus for its role in the election losses while speaking privately with donors, according to the Washington Post.
And now that Pelosi’s wielding the speaker’s gavel again, many conservatives are trying to claim a win for having secured even a dollar of wall funding, even if it’s less than they could have had in December or last spring.
“Based on what I see so far, there’s at least 1.375 billion of those dollars when the speaker said we wouldn’t see a single one,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told VICE News at the Capitol.
But was it worth shutting down the government for that?
“I don’t know how to answer that. I think border security is very important, and I think this has focused people’s attention on the importance. Was it worth it? I’ll leave that to the American people,” Kennedy said.
But top Republican lawmakers are still trying to convince President Trump that the party will live to fight for his wall again soon.
“It’s only a downpayment, because this is going to be a multiyear expenditure,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told VICE News after the closed-door meeting. “This is just the beginning.”
Shelby says he plans to personally convey that message to Trump, who has signaled he still wants to fight for more in the final deal. He's unsure whether Trump throwing cold water on it will cause more Republicans to oppose the final package.
“Well, I think that’s premature at this time,” Shelby said.
While the reality of their diminished power is just hitting many conservatives in Congress, it wasn’t lost on the millions of government workers, contractors and everyday Americans impacted by the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history. Especially since the president may be getting even less money than he demanded just a month and a half ago.
“If this is where we end up, it makes the shutdown look even stupider and even more malevolent,” a frustrated Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol.
But the more the president listens to the conservative talking heads who hate this compromise on the long-promised wall — like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity — the more imperiled the deal becomes, as most people in Washington seem to understand.
“If the president’s going to rely on the so-called Freedom Caucus and the right-wing spokespeople on television, then we’re going to have another shutdown, and I pray that it doesn’t happen,” Sen. Minority Whip Dick Durbin told VICE News at the Capitol.
Durbin’s still holding out hope that Trump will realize what even Freedom Caucusers are now admitting: “I hope he learned a lesson that this shutdown of 35 days harmed a lot of innocent people and ended up with a mutiny in the ranks on the Republican side.”
Cover: Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, speaks to members of the media while walking to the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)