'We're in this for the long haul': Both sides brace for a lengthy shutdown

The question on Capitol Hill right now isn't whether the partial government shutdown will last into the new year — it's how long into the new year it's likely to last.
Image: The Capitol during the partial government shutdown on Dec. 28, 2018.
There has been hardly any real communication this week between Democrats on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Republican president on the other.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — When the new Congress reconvenes next week, their first big task will be cleaning up the mess left behind by the old one, which is expected to leave parts of the government shuttered due to the ongoing funding fight.

The current Congress will technically convene once more this year, but few if any expect a resolution then. Most lawmakers will likely not even bother returning to Washington from their holiday recess.

So the question on Capitol Hill right now isn't whether the shutdown will drag on into the new year — it's how long into the new year it's likely to last.

A new Democratic majority will take over the House on Thursday, Jan. 3, and plans to pass a government funding bill on the same day. But even Democrats acknowledge the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to approve that bill, so the impasse will remain.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is expected to be elected Speaker, will have to strike some kind of deal with Republicans in the Senate and White House.

Both sides have dug into their position in recent days. And there is no obvious middle ground.

“I think it’s going to last a couple of weeks into January, at the earliest,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa. on MSNBC. “And then the question is will it just be funded through February or next September.”

President Donald Trump continues to demand $5 billion for a border wall with Mexico, and even threatened Friday to take the unprecedented step of closing the border entirely if he doesn’t get his way.

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“We're in this for the long haul,” Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Friday morning.

“I think, left to his own devices, that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats probably would cut a deal, but they're protecting Mrs. Pelosi," he added. "She does not have the votes, and if she cuts a deal with the president of any sort before her election on Jan. 3, she's at risk of losing her speakership.”

Democrats scoff at that suggestion. There is nothing more likely to unify the Democratic Caucus around Pelosi, they say, than a pitched battle with Trump.

“Democrats are united against the president's immoral, ineffective and expensive wall — the wall that he specifically promised that Mexico would pay for,” said Drew Hamill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff.

Another factor that has them in no rush to cave: poll numbers that indicate more Americans blaming Trump for the shutdown than congressional Democrats.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows most Americans blaming the GOP, with 47 percent blaming Trump and another 7 percent pointing the finger at congressional Republicans, compared to just 33 percent who blame Democrats in Congress.

Just 35 percent said they wanted the border wall funding in a government spending package, while only 25 percent said they supported the president in shutting down the government over the wall.

But Trump has shown a willingness to defy public opinion as long as his base is with him, and they seem to be spoiling for a fight that could result in more funding for the border wall, Trump’s signature campaign issue, even if parts of the government have to remain closed in the process.

“I think the White House shares responsibility, the House, the Senate do as well. Everyone does,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Friday at a press conference in Miami. “There’s no winner here, and there’s a lot of losers.”

In the meantime, there has been hardly any real communication between Democrats on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Republican president on the other, making it even less likely that negotiators will be prepared to act quickly when the new Congress reconvenes next week.

Vice President Mike Pence last weekend offered Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer a compromise in which the administration would lower its demand for border security spending from $5 billion to $2.5 billion, sources told NBC News.

While both sides dispute what happened next, Democrats have maintained they will not consider any offer that Trump does not publicly endorse, since he has backtracked on private deals in the past.

"What is interesting about this stalemate is that its another indication of how little Trump and his team understand how much their world is going to change next year," said Jim Manley, a longtime former aide to Senate Democrats. "Democrats see a politically weakened president who is consumed by scandal. He thinks he can bluff his way out of this, but he can’t. He has left himself no room to maneuver."

Still, conservatives have urged Trump to hold out “until hell freezes over," as Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas put it on Fox News.

“People are calling in saying, ‘stand up, don't give up. Get us the wall. We need it,” Gohmert said while downplaying the impact of the shutdown. “We already appropriated 75 percent of the government's funding. So when people talk about the shutdown, it's really only a part of 25 percent [of the government that is closed].”

So far — likely due to the fact that the vast majority of Americans have not been directly impacted by the partial shutdown, which affects only nine departments, and perhaps to the holiday timing — there has been little obvious public pressure on lawmakers.

While 61 percent of respondents to a HuffPost/YouGov survey said they consider the partial shutdown to be a serious problem, just 29 percent said they considered it to be “very serious.” Trump voters were especially unlikely to be disturbed by the shutdown, with a clear majority — 59 percent — saying it was not a major problem, and just 12 percent deeming it serious.

Garrett Haake and Hallie Jackson contributed.