Reporter’s Notebook: DC quietly preparing for shutdown, lest they disturb the Yellies
It was quiet late Friday afternoon on Capitol Hill.
Precisely zero TV network cameras jutted out into the narrow “Will Rogers” corridor near the House chamber. Not a single reporter was squeezed between the columns in Statuary Hall, ready to do a live shot. A lone TV crew was set up in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. When one correspondent went on the air, the anchor in New York even remarked about how pronounced the echo sounded in the near-abandoned arcade, reverberating off the arches above.
One wonders if it will be as quiet next Friday night on Capitol Hill, as nine of 15 cabinet departments face a government shutdown at 11:59:59 p.m. ET.
What’s surprising about this potential government shutdown crisis is the silence. The dearth of information. The lack of panic and anxiety.
It’s peculiar to have everyone tiptoeing around Capitol Hill with Washington about to lurch into a holiday calamity.
Perhaps there is only one logical explanation: everyone is concerned about disturbing the Yellies.
The Yellies are a new toy taking Christmas by storm — and driving parents to their liquor cabinets. The Yellies are tiny, fuzzy arachnids. If people talk quietly, the Yellies move about slowly. But the louder people are, the faster they go.
And as you can imagine, kids love yelling and screaming, sending grown-ups into convulsions as the Yellies dart about the house, hitting Mach 2.
This is kind of what’s happening on Capitol Hill. Everyone saw the conclave with President Trump, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York in the Oval Office on Tuesday. They understand the volatility of a government shutdown at Christmastime. So everyone is trying to keep quiet, lest they disturb the Yellies.
There are muted conversations. Not even major exchanges of offers between Capitol Hill and the administration. So everyone is trying to keep quiet, lest they disturb the Yellies.
There has been some chatter that the Trump Administration and Congress may consider a short-term, interim spending bill (known as a Continuing Resolution, or CR), to simply renew all funding through early January and send everyone home for Christmas.
That would fund everything through the new Congress.
A senior Democratic congressional aide tells Fox News that “the only thing a two-week CR would accomplish is that President Trump will lose twice.”
In other words, no wall on December 21. And certainly no wall in January when Democrats control the House.
But a CR would avoid shut down and ensure that federal workers are paid over Christmas. Democrats could be hard-pressed to oppose such an alternative. There aren’t a lot of options available. This is like going into a diner late at night and finding a sign which says “limited menu available.” There is only a limited menu of fare which they can cook up on the Congressional griddle:
1) Congress approves a CR for the entire fiscal year covering all seven of the outstanding spending bills. That means there is no wall money.
2) Congress passes brand-new bills for six of the spending areas and does a CR for only the Homeland Security Appropriations bill. This scenario also lacks wall money.
3) Congress okays all seven bills and includes wall money in the Homeland Security measure.
4) Congress approves a stopgap measure which runs until January or so.
5) Congress and the president agree on nothing and the government shuts down on December 22.
Something has to give. Either Democrats cave and agree to a package with wall money or Trump caves and accepts measures lacking wall money. It may all be about semantics, too. Can the sides draft a proposal where it appears Democrats didn’t give in on the wall, yet Trump can tout the fact that he in fact did get funding for the wall?
Such a political duckbilled platypus isn’t rare in Washington — especially if everyone can leave the compromise open to interpretation and tell the public they got what they wanted and stood their ground.
Trump has a lot to lose here.
There was much introspection two weeks ago when President George H.W. Bush died and lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Historians noted how Bush reneged on his storied campaign promise of “no new taxes.” The government shut down for a few days in early October 1990. To reopen the government and stimulate the struggling economy, Bush backtracked on his “no new taxes” pledge. The tax increase bolstered the economy. But giving in on the campaign promise forever damaged the president and hurt his chances in the 1992 presidential election.
No other campaign promise endears Trump to his loyalists more than the pledge to build the wall. On one hand, failing to go to the mat and not secure the wall could damage Trump. But as one senior Republican observed to Fox News, it doesn’t matter to Trump. His approval rating will always lag in the 30-40 percent range. Anything Trump does won’t move the meter much one way or the other.
“He simply doesn’t care,” observed the lawmaker.
By the same token, Republicans have tried to say that Pelosi needs to go toe-to-toe with Trump to secure the support of her base. That’s an old argument now. Not long after the election, Trump declared that he’d be willing to help Pelosi secure the necessary votes to become speaker. Well, Trump in fact did help Pelosi in that quest — perhaps unwittingly — during that extraordinary council in the Oval Office Tuesday. Pelosi appeared strong and in control. The exchange certainly bolstered Pelosi standing among House Democrats who were skeptical of her returning to the speaker’s suite. Meantime, the president said he’d take credit for a shutdown.
On Friday night, the President tapped Budget Director and House Freedom Caucus founder Mick Mulvaney to serve as “acting” Chief of Staff. Mulvaney came to Congress in 2010 amid the tea party wave of 2010. Mulvaney backed the push for the two-and-a-half week government shutdown over funding ObamaCare in 2013. He opposed a budget compromise later that year authored by current House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., On Capitol Hill, Mulvaney long advocated slashing federal spending and opposed lifting the debt ceiling. Mulvaney detractors bequeathed him the chairman of the “shutdown caucus” on Capitol Hill.
Bipartisan Congressional sources signaled that the appointment of Mulvaney could increase the chances of a government shutdown because of his hardline stances on spending. In Mulvaney, the president has a loyal warrior to wage his battles on Capitol Hill. The president also scored the best of both worlds: Mulvaney at his side at the White House and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who was considered for the Chief of Staff position, remaining on Capitol Hill, influencing the Freedom Caucus.
How a potential shutdown goes could be an audition for Mulvaney. “Acting” could be stripped from Mulvaney’s title if Trump likes what he sees.
Meantime, things are quiet on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives doesn’t even meet again for legislative business until late in the day Wednesday. No Yellies there. Congressional leaders sometimes squeeze rank-and-file members close to the holidays, threatening to keep them in Washington over Christmas unless they vote for whatever is the subject du jour. However, the tactic of reducing the time available to solve a deal may not be directed at lawmakers this year. The president may be the target of that gambit — an effort to force Trump to take-it-or-leave it, whatever the “it” may ultimately be.
And that’s partly why things are so quiet now on Capitol Hill. No one wants to disturb the Yellies. And expect things to remain quiet until mid-week when the government shutdown is just a few days away.