On Friday afternoon, I moved Playboy’s unofficial politics desk to a bar at the throat of Capitol Hill after one of the most brain-bashing weeks we’ve seen in Washington. It’s a testament to the carnival of that week that nobody seemed to be talking about the widening field of Democrats aiming their ambitions at the 2020 election.
But the crisis boiled over when airplanes around the country were grounded because there weren’t enough federal workers on the clock to ensure safe air travel. This happened most notably at LaGuardia in New York City. The cable channels broadcast footage of long, crooked lines of white aircraft on the black tarmac.
There’s no doubt in Washington that the president lost this round. He shut down the government for his wall, and he reopened the government without it. During a Rose Garden speech, he teased a national emergency declaration for the funding, but that move would immediately be deemed unconstitutional.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle were dazed by the shutdown, but the exhaustion was palpable in Republicans, who were called to stand unwavering behind the president as he refused to budge on his border wall. Meanwhile, they were drowned in the clip from Trump’s Oval Office meeting in which he said that he would be “proud” to shut down the government.
Now that lawmakers have seen what a shuttered government looks like, they don’t want to look at airplanes choked on tarmacs again.
On Friday afternoon, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told Playboy that Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was circulating a bill that would end future shutdowns by funding the government at the same rate as the previous year if lawmakers can’t reach a deal. Murkowski estimated that the bill had 18 co-sponsors at lunch and that they were all Republicans. Portman has been pushing this same bill for decades, without success. But now that lawmakers have seen what a shuttered government looks like, they don’t want to look at airplanes choked on tarmacs again. A person familiar with the matter says that a handful of those names were added on Friday, further indicating Republicans’ desire to avert a future shutdown.
Murkowski, who has at times voted with Democrats, says “none of us are willing to go through this again. And it’s not just a few of us, there are a great many.” There’s a chance that as the next shutdown nears, more than half a dozen Republicans may vote against the president. The Democrats were eight votes short of passing their deal. Murkowski voted with the Democrats. As the shutdown ended, a furloughed federal employee asked me what the feeling was on Trump’s move to re-open the government. I told her not to unpack her desk.
The GOP is reframing the issue, coloring it as something they can dance with. In conversations with Playboy, Republicans say they’re interested in “border security”—the term was repeated with such loyalty that it was only possible to hear as a talking point. A wall, as both a theme and a structure, is immovable; “border security” could mean a wall or it could mean setting loose a platoon of bald eagles just north of Tijuana.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, the president has backed them into a corner. His blood-thirsty rally audiences didn’t chant “expand border security,” they chanted “build the wall.” They seem to have tried to get Trump to embrace “border security,” but when he says those words, he does so uneasily. A wall is something that he understands. Border security, he does not. He’s so unwilling to concede on the four-letter-word that at one point in his Rose Garden address, he suggested building “smart walls.”
Trump is leaving the door open to another shutdown. In a Sunday interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president estimated that the chances that lawmakers will reach a deal that he can accept is “less than 50-50.” When asked point-blank if he’ll consider another shutdown, Trump said that it’s “certainly an option.”
But, while the Republicans have flavored their rhetoric, Nancy Pelosi has maintained that she will not pass any bill that includes money for Trump’s wall.
Washington could be nearing the breaking point for the president and his party. The only olive branch the White House has offered is permanent protections for DACA recipients. But Trump’s nativist base and its loudest voices, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, interpret that as granting amnesty to criminals. On Monday, lawmakers were saying that deal was off the table.
More than a few Republicans have quietly expressed disagreements with Trump, but they’ve never been willing to vote with those misgivings. If the next shutdown is as punishing on the American people and the GOP’s reputation as the first one turned out to be, the center may not hold.