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People are unhappy about the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, and just so. But while this anger at the president for signing the legislation is reasonable, President Trump is not to blame for the situation that created it, no matter how much the NeverTrump crowd insists that he is. It’s possible the omnibus could provide the president the key to accomplishing his most important goal.
After his initial hint that he would veto the bill, the president ultimately signed it while reaffirming he was “unhappy” and “disappointed” with various provisions. While the bill does include funding for some key areas of Trump’s agenda—including border security and fighting the opioid epidemic—he insists it does not do enough for immigration enforcement. His main reason for signing was the huge appropriation for the military: $700 billion, the largest increase in defense spending in 15 years.
Trump signed, but with plenty of misgivings toward Congress, which must pass another funding bill in September. He warned that he would “never sign another bill like this again.”
Trouble is, this bill had broad bipartisan support. In the House, 145 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted yes, for a total of 256 overall “Yea” votes; 90 Republicans and 77 Democrats voted “No,” with three Republicans and four Democrats not voting. In the Senate, 65 senators voted in favor of the legislation: 25 Republicans, 39 Democrats, and one Independent. Only 23 Republicans, eight Democrats, and one Independent voted “No,” with three Republicans not voting.
One Man Alone Could Have Fixed It
Of course, there was a brief period when all it would have taken was one brave legislator to stop the entire bill. At the moment of the vote to allow the bill to proceed, when Senate rules say the vote must be unanimous.
It was here that most eyes turned to the one man who had been the bill’s loudest critic: Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He had repeatedly criticized the bill on Twitter, supported a possible veto, and threatened a potential shutdown over it.
For all his posturing, what did the quasi-libertarian senator do? He voted yes along with everyone else to let the vote proceed. At that point, his vote against the final bill was mere symbolism. So much for Paul and his “principles.”
After the omnibus passed, Congress immediately left town for a two-week recess. That meant if Trump had vetoed the bill, nobody would have been in town to renegotiate. The government would have “shut down”—though as we all know by now, a “shutdown” is never really what the doomsayers make it out to be.
Nevertheless, shutdowns make for “bad optics,” as the flacks say. The president would have had no political cover, unlike earlier in the year when Democrats forced a shutdown over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Despite their best effort to paint lawbreakers as victims and Trump as a monster, the Democrats and their allies in the kept media lost the shutdown battle and caved quickly. This time, the focus would have been on Trump exclusively.
But the president had another problem: given the margin of “yeas,” there was a strong likelihood that the Republican-controlled Congress would have overridden the Republican president’s veto. Trump didn’t need that kind of embarrassment, especially with a highly anticipated summit with North Korea in the works.
A Possible Silver Lining
Instead, the president did the honorable thing—or the closest thing to it under the circumstances. He refused to stoop to the same level as the Democrats and shutdown the government when doing so would have held the military hostage. He had only two options: Veto the bill, hurt the military, temporarily shut down the government before eventually being overridden, and divide the base; or pass the bill, and divide the base.
Given the choice, it’s clear he made the best of a rotten situation, blasting Congress and warning he won’t sign another garbage bill. He didn’t just put Democrats on notice, either. The Republican establishment is in his crosshairs, too.
Even with a spending bill as bad as this, there may be a redeeming factor that overcomes so much bloat and pork.
The reality is, Congress provided billions for improvements to the existing border fence, but included no money for a border wall specifically. Does it matter? During his signing speech on Friday, Trump hinted at something extraordinary: He could classify the border wall as a national security issue. That would then place the multibillion-dollar project under the purview of the Pentagon, with construction by the Army Corps of Engineers, once the president settles on one of eight design prototypes. During his trip to the border in California earlier this month, Trump seemed to hint at which of the eight designs he would pick.
On Sunday, the president was more explicit on Twitter:
Because of the $700 & $716 Billion Dollars gotten to rebuild our Military, many jobs are created and our Military is again rich. Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2018
Much can be done with the $1.6 Billion given to building and fixing the border wall. It is just a down payment. Work will start immediately. The rest of the money will come – and remember DACA, the Democrats abandoned you (but we will not)!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2018
Again: the omnibus allocated $700 billion in defense spending. The White House has been considering the use of defense dollars to build the wall since last summer. All that was missing was the money. Now that Congress has approved a massive hike in defense, Trump may have the means to a very important, highly coveted end. Congress would howl, but it just might work.
Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images