The Senate Owns This Shutdown

How is the current partial government shutdown going to end? That’s the question echoing down the halls of empty congressional chambers, talk radio, and cable news shows.

On Thursday, the Senate made a part of the outcome obvious. After retreating for the Christmas holiday, the Senate returned to work—for all of three minutes. The Senate came into session on Thursday afternoon, and then gaveled out again three minutes later, until January 2. The upper chamber is determined, it seems, to avoid a vote on the House bill to fund the government—a bill that also provides $5 billion for President Trump’s border wall.

Senators would rather wait it out until January 3, when the gavel falls on the 116th Congress and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) takes charge again. Until that happens, it’s become quite clear that the McConnell Senate will not have a single vote to fund the government, Trump’s wall, or anything else.

The last two years should perhaps have made this outcome obvious. This is the same Senate that failed to repeal Obamacare, fought against holding votes to defund Planned Parenthood, and repeatedly shut down opportunities to offer even mainstream Republican policy priorities.

With friends like these, who needs Democrats?

When conservatives would push back and press for their own priorities, they were told “but 60 votes! We need 60 votes!”

And yet, in the same breath, the Republican establishment passed tax reform, a partial repeal of Dodd Frank, gun control, a carve-out for industrial hemp, and several other priorities you haven’t heard of and don’t care about unless you live and work among the corporate interest lobby on K Street (or in Kentucky). And they did it all without 60 Republican votes they so desperately claim they need as a prerequisite for action.

This is also the Senate that, bizarrely, left key procedural opportunities on the table. Reconciliation, a vehicle that requires only 51 votes (and which was employed to pass tax reform in 2017 and parts of Obamacare in 2010), went unused.

So, too, did any effort to make life the least bit painful for Democrats. The fight (or, really, lack of fight) over the wall is Exhibit A. Rather than put the House funding bill on the floor and force Democrats to filibuster it, Senate Republicans did what they do best. They simply retreated, shrugged their shoulders, and conceded in the face of Democrat opposition.

This is the Republican establishment logic. Unless it’s a K Street priority, it gets the brush off. Without 60 votes, why bother? It’s just wasting time.

But there is ample evidence that “the fight” so roundly decried by establishment Republicans actually has tangible impact. When past Senates brought bills to the floor and allowed time for amendments and debate, cloture (the 60-vote requirement) was required very rarely. Rather, consensus (or exhaustion, an equally valuable tool in the Senate) was reached, and the body decided to move forward at a majority threshold.

That is unheard of in today’s Senate, which rarely, if ever, boasts an open legislative process or debate. Remember, this is the Senate that couldn’t even stay in town to debate the current shutdown!

The conflict over border wall funding represents the clash that has been in the making for the last two years. Since President Trump’s election, there has been a visceral and visible tug of war between the two poles of the Republican party: the establishment, D.C.-based big government Republican party of George W. Bush, and a more populist, grassroots constituency—the “country class,” as Angelo Codevilla calls it—that prefers more limited government, feels passionately about pro-life issues and strong borders, and actively opposes Obamacare.

For years, the former has pandered to the latter, running on flashy promises, like the one Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013: “We will repeal Obamacare root and branch.” The current Republican majority ran on a platform of strong border security—in addition to the most pro-life platform the party has ever ratified. In January, departing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and McConnell—with the same House and Senate they have now—pledged to fund Trump’s wall up to $15 billion.

They promise it because they want to get elected. Because they know what matters to you, and to me. But then when it really counts in Washington, they turn the other way.

In the case of Trump’s wall, where 65 percent of Republicans did not want a compromise, Senate Republicans quite literally turned heel, and walked out the door. They haven’t been in Washington or voting since December 21. They won’t be back until Wednesday.

So, when you hear another pundit wondering aloud about how this shutdown will end, you already know. The Senate has told you. No funding bill can pass, or even be debated, without the Republican Senate in session. And they’ve already hung up the cleats.

Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

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About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.