How the partial government shutdown came to be: A look behind the scenes
“We must cultivate our garden.” – "Candide" by Voltaire
The cultivation of the third government shutdown of 2018 began with a late-night Senate quorum call on Dec. 19.
Not an ersatz quorum call where a clerk reads “Mr. Alexander” and then falls silent for 15 minutes before uttering the next name on the scroll, “Ms. Baldwin.” Heaven knows when they would ever get to “Mr. Barrasso” or Mr. Bennet.”
No. The Senate was in a live quorum call in an effort to coerce senators to the chamber to eventually vote to fund the government. In this instance, the Senate was truly trying to determine whether Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and their 96 colleagues were present. A moment later, the Senate determined there wasn’t a quorum in the chamber. So the next vote was to “instruct the Sergeant at Arms to request the attendance of absent senators.”
In other words, if you’re a senator, you had better hop-to because they are about to bring the heat.
The live quorum call and Sergeant at Arms request was a crafty maneuver by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who planned to advance the stopgap spending bill without new border-wall funding. But McConnell wanted all 100 senators -- or as many were around late that Wednesday -- to be on hand so no one could complain he pulled a fast one. McConnell submitted the legislation to a voice vote. That is to say, not a roll-call tally, but a vote where everyone in favor hollers yea and those opposed shout nay.
McConnell wanted all 100 senators -- or as many were around late that Wednesday -- to be on hand so no one could complain he pulled a fast one.
A few senators called yea. None declared nay.
And with that, the Senate had approved the emergency spending bill. It would keep the government funded through Feb. 8.
But the House had to sync up.
The House Rules Committee is the way station for most legislation en route to the House floor. The Rules panel does just what it says it does. It establishes “rules” for debate. Parameters of how the House will handle a given bill, such as a time allotment and what amendments, if any, are even in order. If you don’t have a “rule” from the Rules Committee, you can’t consider the bill. The same goes if the full House defeats the “rule” on the floor.
The House GOP leadership controls the Rules Committee. The leadership mandates time and amendment restrictions. But late on Dec. 19, Republican members of the Rules Committee realized they had a problem. The Senate had just approved a bill without new wall funding. The Senate did so without debate or even a roll call vote. Orders from the Republican high command were to prepare a “rule” for the Senate-OK'd measure and put the legislation on the floor the next day. But there was a lot of angst among GOPers on the Rules Committee. Many of them didn’t want to craft a rule without border-wall funding. Moreover, rank-and-file Republicans were reluctant to consider a bill without new wall money. Hard-line Trump administration officials were coaxing Republicans to put up a fight for the wall. They argued that the GOP should back a bill with no new wall dollars only if it had a “majority of the majority” in the House. After all, this was a last-ditch effort.
Rules Committee Republicans faced a conundrum. They sensed a potential revolt by GOPers. They could follow marching orders and create a “rule” based around the construct of the Senate bill. The rule itself would likely require a weird coalition of some Republicans and lots of Democrats just to pass. Same with the bill. Or, the rule could crumble on the floor and go down to defeat. That would be a true embarrassment to Republicans and spark a mutiny.
Why did the Republican leadership misread the rank-and-file so badly? Why the noise about a border wall when the GOP was ready to fold? Why hand over the keys of the castle to the Democrats early?
You thought the comments about the macaroni-and-cheese dish by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were ugly on Twitter? This was about to get uglier.
“We decided to stay and fight,” said one House Republican.
Seven members of the House Rules Committee showed up to the 11 p.m. ET meeting on Dec. 19. Not a single Democrat on the committee surfaced. The panel first heard concerns from Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., about the disposal of nuclear waste. Then members of the Freedom Caucus made their appeals about the wall.
The hour grew late. It was after midnight. Key administration officials were out of pocket. The same with senior House Republican leaders.
The Rules Committee Republicans recessed their meeting. Not adjourned. But recessed “subject to the call of the chair.” That means they were coming back -- but exactly when wasn’t clear. But that’s what you do on Capitol Hill when there’s uncertainty. You recess the House, Senate or a committee “subject to the call of the chair.” Most significantly, the committee filed no “rule” for the Senate-passed stopgap spending bill. It would be up to the House Republican leadership to decide how to proceed on Thursday morning.
That’s what you do on Capitol Hill when there’s uncertainty: You recess the House, Senate or a committee “subject to the call of the chair.”
House Republicans met in a conference at 9 a.m. the next day, Dec. 20. Multiple sources tell FOX News that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asked GOPers to approve the Senate bill. The speaker explained how passing the interim spending bill now without new border-wall funding would make Democrats look bad in February. Democrats would be trying to launch their new House majority while bogged down in a spending fight with the administration just after President Trump’s State of the Union speech.
Mr. Trump phoned the Speaker a few moments into the conference meeting. Ryan excused himself. The gig was up. House Republicans would aim to pass a bill that funded the government but included $5 billion for the border wall.
“It was one last chance to stand up for our majority,” said one House Republican.
Later that night, the House approved the funding measure with wall money. The House and Senate were out of alignment. There was almost no way the Senate could tackle a bill with the wall. The partial government shutdown was all but a fait accompli.
McConnell put the “clean” spending bill on the floor Dec. 19. The Kentucky Republican repeatedly doubted there would be a shutdown. Did McConnell misread President Trump? Did the president and the White House mislead McConnell? Did House Republican leaders mislead McConnell?
How did Ryan and other House GOP leaders initially misread the White House and the desire of rank-and-file Republicans? Did they inflate the vote count of what a “majority of the majority” could support? Did the White House mislead Ryan into thinking the president would sign a Band-Aid bill without wall money?
And then there’s House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She argued for weeks that Republicans couldn’t pass a bill on their own with wall funding. Pelosi is the best vote counter in Washington in decades. How did Pelosi misinterpret things? Or did Pelosi’s bravado backfire and provoke Republicans to vote yea? Regardless, the outcome on the wall vote was a shot across the bow of the speaker-in-waiting from the soon-to-be loyal opposition.
“We must cultivate our garden,” declared Candide. House Republicans knew what awaited them if they caved again with no new wall dollars. President Trump and most GOPers had long cultivated the expectation of a border wall. Perhaps even better yet, they cultivated a skirmish with Democrats if they refused to fund the wall. For if Republicans didn’t “cultivate their garden” when it came to the border wall, they may well find themselves cultivating something else: an insurrection with the conservative base.