Reaching agreement on an interim bill to fund the federal government shouldn’t be hard when one party has run the table. But in an example of the chaotic careening that is becoming an early mark of the Trump presidency, Washington has just come through another manufactured crisis triggered by last-minute administration demands that come on like thunder but just as quickly recede.
Lawmakers had been on a quiet path to negotiating interim funding to keep government going past midnight Friday, when current funding runs out. Admittedly, it’s a stopgap measure, but one needed to allow factionalized Republicans and Democrats time to work out their differences on next year’s budget.
Then Trump stepped in. Stung by criticism that his first 100 days lacked significant achievements, he began demanding an immediate, taxpayer-funded “down payment” on the wall that Mexico — unsurprisingly — has refused to pay for. The budget director, Mick Mulvaney, who should have been rounding up support for the bill to avoid an embarrassing government shutdown on his boss’s watch, instead made a demand that put congressional Republicans in an impossible position: No subsidies for insurers providing coverage under the Affordable Care Act unless Democrats coughed up enough votes to get the border wall started. A wall that may cost well more than $20 billion, and that has no reliable source of continued funding other than American taxpayers.
Adding to the urgency, the White House last week ordered federal agencies to prepare for a shutdown, which itself sets off a cascade of preparations for anyone dealing with those agencies.
Then just as suddenly as the threat flared, it withered. After a week of turmoil and just three days till the deadline, Trump folded, signaling that he could make do with a little extra border security money and military spending.
Maybe this counts as a win in the world of New Jersey land deals, but in the realm of national politics it creates instability, wasted effort and needless upheaval. Even more maddening, with proper framing Trump likely could have gotten the same deal minus the drama, since both Republicans and Democrats have reason to support enhanced security.
Where are the high-level negotiating skills, the finesse Trump led voters to believe he possessed? His modus operandi so far appears to consist of clumsy bluffs and crisis creation that he seems to think will give him the upper hand.
Trump has been burned enough in these initial months to realize these tactics not only aren’t working, they actually are harming both his presidency and the continued Republican majority he needs. However hard it is to bend Congress to his will now, it will be infinitely harder if Democrats win back even one body.
In his next 100 days, Trump would do well to develop a modicum of respect for Congress as a separate and equal branch of government. Republicans lawmakers are not underlings awaiting orders from the Oval Office. Trump was wrong to bring his party to the brink of a shutdown for which it would surely bear the blame.
Republicans, with only a slim lead in the Senate, know they need to find a way to work with Democrats, particularly on the regular appropriations for 2018. Finding a smooth path to interim funding is at least a start. The administration should do what it can to aid that effort, not foul it up.