President Trump's stalemate over border wall funding has been intellectually and emotionally fueled by conservative talking heads like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. But inside Washington, the real power broker behind the shutdown, whipping enough House opposition to kill any compromise, is the chair of the Freedom Caucus, North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows.
Last week, Meadows succeeded in getting 217 of his GOP colleagues to side with Trump in his $5 billion demand for wall funding. But that bill can’t pass the Senate, which wants to give him $1.3 billion for border security — not a wall.
Now, the president’s chances for border wall funding depend on Meadows’ ability to hold those Republicans together, even though ultimately any deal will have to win support of Senate Democrats and, if the shutdown lasts into the new year, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, too.
“I can tell you: This is not a Freedom Caucus position. This is really a GOP conference position,” Meadows told VICE News after meeting with Trump at the White House over the weekend. “There’s no way we would have gotten this done without moderates and other conservatives supporting the position.”
The Republicans lose control of the House in a matter of days, but until then conservative House Republicans led by Meadows see the shutdown as their last, best chance to deliver on a campaign promise to their base, and possibly the make-or-break fight for 2020.
Desperate for a deal
Over the weekend the White House told Democrats they would take $2.1 billion in wall funding, an offer rejected by Democrats. But the fight shows how badly the White House wants something, anything, to show the base they’re serious about the wall.
“You get to the point where you can only make promises that go unfulfilled for so long.”
“You get to the point where you can only make promises that go unfulfilled for so long, and two years into the administration and no money for a wall – and we don’t got two years left for sure,” Meadows said.
Democrats have little incentive to end the stalemate. First, they believe incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi has successfully branded it the “Trump Shutdown,” as she called it while in the Oval Officea week ago meeting with Trump as the cameras rolled. Second, many Democrats just won a historic election and along with it a mandate to oppose Trump’s policies, namely, the wall.
“The GOP clearly did not learn the message of the midterm election,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) texted VICE News from his Philadelphia district. “The Republicans’ major message in the final weeks of the campaign was about border security, and they went on to lose 40 seats, their biggest loss since Watergate. So one month later. they come back to D.C. and shut down the government, over border security.”
That’s why Democrats, who don’t take control of the House until Jan. 3, are in no rush to get their Republican counterparts out of this mess.
“I’m fully behind Nancy,” Boyle continued. “I believe our caucus is too.”
The White House has been sending Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner (who is now on vacation in Florida) to lead negotiations. Democrats have seen them as weak negotiators because they fear the loudest voices in conservative media are dictating the GOP’s position.
“I think they ought to invite Sean Hannity to negotiate this. He’s obviously the one calling the shots for the president.”
“I think they ought to invite Sean Hannity to negotiate this. He’s obviously the one calling the shots for the president,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number-two Senate Democrat, vented to VICE News last week.
And Democrats also feel emboldened because now many of the retiring or ousted Republicans aren’t expected to come back to Washington this month, though many of those who stayed in D.C. until heading home for the holiday also have been checked out for weeks now.
“I blew off three votes on the floor [Friday], because it got to be 4:30, and I went, ‘Who is going to care more? My eye doctor … or the constituents who no longer track my votes,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) laughed with an aide over the weekend while walking through the Capitol with VICE News. “So it felt bad, but I was like a Pavlovian dog — I still drool every time the bell rings, but I don’t actually have to answer the bell.”
But Issa voted with his party to double down on Trump’s demand for $5 billion in wall funding. And now that he’s basically checked out, he’s hoping his party can reach a deal before he can’t cast another vote as a member of the House of Representatives.
“I’m here, to a certain extent, because I want that last vote to be opening the government,” Issa said. “I don’t want to get to Jan. 3 and essentially never have been able to come to an agreement with the Senate.”
While last week Trump urged Senate Republicans to blow up the filibuster for simple legislation (it’s already gone for nominees) so that his party could pass the wall funding with a mere 51 votes, many in the GOP rejected that advice as shortsighted.
So the president needs Democratic votes to support whatever deal is reached, and they feel no need to give an inch, especially after Trump has repeatedly advocated for a shutdown for the past few months now and even crowed he'd be "proud" to own it.
“What he’s trying to do is blame someone,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol over the weekend.
In most shutdowns, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but for now Democrats are confident that only one party and one man will get blamed: Donald Trump and the GOP. So for now that leaves some 800,000 federal workers either furloughed or being forced to work without pay, even as the majority of the nation’s lawmakers are still on holiday far away from Washington.
Cover: Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., pauses to speaks to media, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)