Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leaders UK programme.
We are in the middle most important legislative week in the Trump presidency so far, as tax reform and the budget deadline both loom large.
The fate of the President’s first year in office looks to hang in the balance, as the Republican Congress tries to put its first legislative achievement on the desk in the Oval office for signing.
Delivering tax reform would be a major step towards helping Republicans prove that they can make good their key campaign promises, especially after failure to pass health care reform. While tax reform is the legislative ambition, avoiding a government shutdown is quickly becoming the political priority.
In September, President Trump unexpectedly struck a deal with the Democratic leadership – Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi – much to the surprise of Republicans in Congress. He enjoyed the positive reaction in the news media, the very targets of his customary “fake news” tirades. Finally, some believed, the ‘Art of the Deal’ was being put into action.
There appears to be little sign of similar good will as the budget deadline looms on December 8th. Since then, relations with the Democratic leadership have worsened significantly, and look to be rapidly descending to new lows.
Yesterday, Sen. Schumer and Rep. Pelosi abruptly withdrew from a scheduled White House meeting which hd averting a government shutdown top of the agenda. The reason? The tweets.
Just hours beforehand, President Trump threw doubt on the prospects for the negotiations, tweeting that Schumer and Pelosi “want illegal immigrants flooding into our country unchecked, are weak on crime and want to substantially RAISE taxes”. For the avoidance of all doubt, the president added: “I don’t see a deal”.
Who holds the leverage? Despite Republican control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, a slim majority in the upper chamber of Congress means Democratic votes are required. As Pelosi loves to remind her Republican colleagues, the votes are the currency of the realm.
Republicans need at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to meet the 60-vote threshold, in order to approve a federal spending bill. With a long list of demands that Senate Democrats could tie to their support for a budget deal, ranging from Obamacare subsidies to ongoing support for the ‘Dreamers’, the support of the minority party in the Senate is key.
Meanwhile, the President wants money for the border wall and sees the budget as a new opportunity to reform Obamacare. It is a high-risk strategy on all sides for the stakes to be raised so greatly. Neither side will want to back down and come to the table for talks first, only increasing the likelihood of no deal.
Despite the clear and present fact that it is the American public who miss out most in the event of a government shutdown, both sides look to be gaming out its political advantages. For the opposition Democrats, Schumer lays the blame at the feet of the Republicans who are “running the show”, given their majorities across the government.
For the Republicans, Trump has already prepared his attack lines, noting: “If that [a shutdown] happens, I would absolutely blame the Democrats. If it happens, it’s going to be over illegal immigrants pouring into the country, crime pouring into the country, no border wall”.
Schumer and Pelosi, despite rebuffing the President, welcomed the chance to meet with the Republican congressional leadership to take the matter forward. It was an attempt to drive an even greater wedge between the Trump and Ryan/McConnell wings within the Republican Party.
It may have the reverse effect. While Republicans remain split on their support for a President who has been willing to publicly burn their colleagues, they are united in their opposition to the Democrats. In trying to prize them apart, the Schumer-Pelosi strategy may well end up bringing Republicans far closer together.
Looking down the barrel of a shutdown that would reflect poorly on both parties, the pressure is now on to act in a short timeframe on two fronts. With an alarmingly few legislative days before Christmas, a looming shutdown is the last thing Congress and the White House needs on their plates right now.