Shutdown Debate 2.0: Don’t Expect a Fairy Tale Ending

Charles Cooper

As federal employees return to work after the temporary resolution of the government shutdown, all attention shifts to what will happen to avoid another one.

As federal employees return to their jobs after the temporary resolution of the government shutdown, all attention shifts to what will happen to avoid another shutdown if a deal isn’t reached by February 15th. There are several different paths that are possible going forward – but finding a strong, bipartisan compromise where all sides “win” is likely not one of them.

The dynamics that created the last shutdown are largely unchanged and there are several significant factors that do not lend themselves to a grand bargain:

Positions on Both Sides Have Solidified

During the 35-day partial government shutdown, neither the President nor Democrats adjusted their positions – the President demanded funding for a border wall and House and Senate Democrats strongly opposed any additional funding. To their credit, neither side budged – the shutdown was ultimately resolved when Senate Republicans began to voice their strong concerns with the shutdown and demanded White House action. The White House and Democrats remained closely aligned with their own positions with little room for compromise and restated those positions since the government re-opened.

Democrats Remain United

Despite several growing factions within the House Democratic caucus, House and Senate Democrats remained united throughout the shutdown and may have become more united as a result of the shutdown. Unlike the Republican side of the aisle, there was not a growing number of Democrats advocating for a different strategy or questioning leadership as to the direction they were headed. Democrats remained confident in their strategy, and polling blaming the President for the shutdown likely bolstered that confidence.

The Shutdown Remains “Above the Fold”

In today’s political landscape, bipartisanship does work but generally around issues that are not in the media spotlight. Positioning around the February 15th deadline will be a top story for the coming weeks, which will force all sides to align themselves with the polarizing positions that have dominated the discussions thus far. Compromise generally does not come easy when issues are deeply entrenched in political debate.

A “Win-Win” Is Hard to Find

Messaging by both sides has not provided much room for compromise, especially in a way that would welcome a “win” for everyone. At this point, the narrative is fairly pointed – Democrats are opposed to a border wall and the President demands one. It is hard to imagine what compromise is possible that is not easily framed as a one-sided victory or a loss among grassroots supporters on either side.

An Echo Chamber Building Through 2020 Candidates

The half dozen (and growing) Democrats that have announced their likely run for President have helped to elevate the Democratic message around a border wall and further distance the party from the negotiating table. 

At this point, there are three potential scenarios to consider:

  • Another Shutdown: While it is all the same players with all the same positions, another shutdown seems unlikely. The President does not want to be in public disagreements with Senate Republicans and a shutdown would almost certainly position Senate Republicans as supporters of a shutdown, which would be a significant vulnerability heading into 2020.
  • A Grand Bargain: From time to time, policymakers surprise the public and find a path to agreement when all hope seems lost (see the Ryan-Murray grand bargain). With issues that are as politically sensitive as immigration and both sides being well-entrenched in their positions, it seems hard to find a reasonable path to this type of agreement.
  • President Moves on His Own: Of course, the President could use his powers to declare a national emergency to fund the border wall. While this would likely be fought in the courts and House oversight hearings, it would provide the President with an opportunity to show progress on funding the border wall (a priority of his base) and rhetorically position Democrats as being against border security in advance of the 2020 election. 

We have three weeks to watch the second act of this funding drama play out. Thirty Democrats signed a letter suggesting Speaker Pelosi give President Trump a vote on the wall if he reopened the government, though it would nearly certainly not pass out of the House. We are all hoping for an agreement that will allow the funding process to move forward and for the House and Senate to begin considering their legislative agendas, but the current landscape does not lend itself to a fairy tale ending.