Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the House conservative leader who in December advised President Donald Trump to reject any government funding bill without a down payment on his border wall, isn’t happy with a compromise agreement Congress has come up with on border security. But he’s stuck.
The government will run out of money again this Friday, and the last time conservatives overplayed their hand with government shutdown brinksmanship, the government underwent the longest shutdown in US history. It tanked Trump’s approval rating without getting them any closer to their desired hundreds of miles of fencing along the US-Mexico border.
Officially, Meadows said the compromise was “hardly a serious attempt to secure our border,” and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), another conservative Trump ally who also advised Trump to shut down the government over border wall funding, called it “bad deal.”
Privately, conservatives admit they have few options. “There is no appetite for shutdown, especially after how the last one went down,” a Republican congressional aide close to the conservatives told Vox. But the alternative, accepting the bipartisan deal House and Senate lawmakers hashed out Monday night, is proving too hard to swallow.
The agreement would allocate only $1.3 billion toward the fencing (less than what Senate Democrats offered last year), in exchange for decreasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.
Last week, Meadows told reporters he’d rather keep passing a stopgap funding agreement than agree to an unfavorable bipartisan compromise. After the border security deal was announced late Monday night, Meadows tweeted that he thinks the president should take executive action on the border, implying he’d rather that than another shutdown.
“The best-case scenario looks like you take this deal, take the money, and use executive action,” the Republican aide said — showing a clear shift among conservatives, who spent all of Barack Obama’s tenure railing against excessive use of executive power.
Conservatives and the Trump White House are stuck. They have to either admit that they gravely underestimated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ability to keep Democrats unified against the border wall or say the shutdown was a political play — one that forced 800,000 federal employees to miss two paychecks over the holidays.
Either way, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that conservatives will get what they want on immigration through Congress. So now they are calling on the president to circumvent Congress altogether.
Trump keeps not getting what he wants on immigration in Congress
The compromise deal on border security technically gives Trump what he wants. There’s some money for physical barriers: $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new border fencing. The border security is more holistic than just fencing; the deal also includes $1.7 billion in funding for other resources, like technology. And it doesn’t put a cap on detention beds, as Democrats were initially calling for, instead funding 40,520 beds.
But conservatives and the Trump White House know this is a far cry from their demands.
As Vox’s Li Zhou reported, the wall funding is “actually less than the $1.6 billion in fencing funding offered by a bipartisan Senate agreement last year. And it’s far less than the $5.7 billion President Trump has demanded for a wall in recent requests.” And ICE will actually be reducing its number of detention beds under this agreement.
A close look at how immigration and border security negotiations have gone in Congress since Trump came into office shows that this is par for the course; Trump’s immigration agenda is untenable in Congress.
His comprehensive proposal to overhaul the legal and illegal immigration systems didn’t even have enough support among Republicans alone to pass the House last year. The wall has gone unfunded repeatedly. And the last major Department of Homeland Security spending bill, passed in March 2018, didn’t meet Trump’s demands for additional border patrol officers and reduced ICE detention beds.
Nothing — not even shutting down the government for more than a month — has moved Trump closer to getting his funding demands in Congress. Instead, it’s only cost him more, tanking his already low approval rating and putting hundreds of thousands of Americans’ livelihoods on the line.
So Trump’s conservative allies who used to be game for a good shutdown fight (Meadows and Jordan also rallied behind the 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare) no longer see another shutdown as an option. And while privately, there is nervousness about Trump pursuing the wall through executive action — both because of the likely legal backlash and because of the precedent it would set for possible future Democratic presidents — there’s no better path forward for them.
“I do expect the president to take some kind of executive action — a national emergency is certainly part of that,” Meadows said on CBS over the weekend. “At this point, we have a crisis. We have a crisis with a need to secure the border that we have to do. And this president is going to build a wall one way or another.”
Shutdown brinkmanship hasn’t worked — for anyone
Shutdown brinksmanship, the game of using the government shutdown to leverage a policy win, has increasingly become the standard operating procedure in Congress.
Democrats used it last year to force the Senate to take up votes on bipartisan immigration proposals. The three-day shutdown ultimately left Democrats with a verbal commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to negotiate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Those negotiations were fruitless.
In December, Trump, encouraged by House conservatives, tried the same strategy. It failed again. Trump’s popularity dropped below 40 percent during the government shutdown, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted December 21 to 23. The last time Trump’s approval rating was that low was when he refused to condemn neo-Nazis after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
And while approval ratings and public perception around shutdowns are usually short-lived and will likely have little electoral effect, it’s increasingly looking like Trump has no choice but to accept a bipartisan border security proposal that his most hardline allies see as pathetic.