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Trump's second year starts with the government sputtering to a stop

Brand new year, same old budget brinkmanship.
Image: President Trump makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Jan. 18, 2018.
President Trump makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Jan. 18, 2018.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

News analysis

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump campaigned as the master deal-maker, a guy who could come to Washington, knock a few heads and get the government working again.

But on the anniversary of Trump's inauguration, America awoke to a government shutdown — a dramatic testament to dysfunction, partisan gridlock and failed leadership.

There was a lot at stake: for the public, for House Republicans who fear losing their majority, for Senate Democrats whose incumbents will now have to defend their votes and the shutdown to constituents, and for Trump, whose approval ratings have languished below 40 percent.

But as federal spending authority expired at midnight Saturday, the nation's top elected officials sent the election-year message that they're less concerned with performing the most basic task of governance than catering to the demands of partisans.

"The overwhelming majority of voters just want the government to do its job," said Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican political operative and professor at the University of Southern California. "But the bases of both parties hate compromise — and in a turnout election year, the bases get whatever they want."

There's plenty of blame to go around: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., didn't blink. Neither did Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

While it's not clear how long the shutdown will last, it won't end until one of them feels enough political pain to back down. McConnell predicted Saturday that Democrats' constituents would be angry with them for injecting illegal immigration into a debate over government operations.

"When our friends across the aisle remember who it is they actually represent, we will be ready to come together in the bipartisan discussion that will be necessary to clean up all of this mess," he said.

Schumer pointed his finger at Trump.

"It's almost as if you were rooting for a shutdown," he said, addressing the president from the Senate floor. "The blame should crash entirely on President Trump's shoulders."

And White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in an official statement from the administration, called Democrats "obstructionist losers" and said Trump wouldn't entertain any discussion of an immigration deal until the government is re-opened.

On Friday, Schumer thought he might have struck a deal with the president after having been summoned to the White House for a final round of negotiating. During the meeting, Schumer later said on the Senate floor, he offered Trump a deal: Schumer would support a border wall if Trump would agree to add provisions to the spending bill that would provide legal status for the "DREAMers" who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

Afterward, both sides proclaimed that they had made progress toward a deal.

"We had a long and detailed meeting," Schumer said. "We discussed all of the major outstanding issues, we made some progress, but we still have a good number of disagreements. The discussions will continue."

But the disagreements bested the discussions. The deal-maker president chose not to make an agreement that would have infuriated immigration hard-liners in his own party.

Most Democrats refused to vote for a spending bill unless it provided a shield for DREAMers, who will lose existing protection from deportation in March. Republicans declined to add that fix even though both Trump, who set the deadline in September, and congressional Republicans said they were committed to finding a solution.

It was also Trump who blew up immigration talks during a meeting with several Republican senators and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois earlier this month. Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., thought they'd struck a deal — but Trump, flanked by immigration hard-liners, told them he wasn't into it. During the meeting, Durbin said, the president referred to African nations as "shithole countries" and wondered why the United States would want more immigrants from that continent or the nations of Haiti and El Salvador.

But Democrats insisted on protection for the DREAMers — roughly 800,000 people — as they refused to vote for a short-term stopgap spending bill to keep the government operating while negotiations with the White House continued. There were a host of other riders as Democrats sought to sweeten the pot, but it was the DREAMers, a touchstone for Latinos and party liberals, who were out front.

"I think it’s a disaster for Democrats," said conservative NBC political analyst Hugh Hewitt. "They backed into a corner where they are rejecting CHIP and putting a DREAMer deal at risk over 700 miles of fencing? Incredible." (Hewitt was referring to the Children's Health Insurance Program.)

McConnell accused Schumer of not knowing what he wanted when he suggested Congress could pass a days-long spending bill to keep pressure on negotiators. He also pointed a finger at the president on the immigration dispute, saying on the Senate floor that Trump hadn't yet made clear his true aims to Republicans in Congress.

Both parties readied campaign attacks against the other side, hopeful — if not certain — that the impasse would benefit their own fortunes.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to McConnell, noted that Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., had voted for short-term spending bills when Barack Obama was president but said more recently that his breaking point was the fourth such measure under Trump.

"What changed, Jon?" the SLF asked in an email sent to reporters. "Hopefully voters ask the same question of Tester when they go to the ballot box this November."

What hasn't changed is Washington's inertia.

"The underlying issue is that Congress is almost incapable of passing major legislation through its regular process," Republican strategist Chris Wilson said.

"Democrats believe there's political upside to a shutdown for them so they are using DREAMers as the political equivalent of a human shield and daring Republicans not to act," he added, noting a Quinnipiac poll showing that 34 percent of voters would blame Democrats for a shutdown, 32 percent would blame Republicans and 21 percent would blame Trump. "Republicans see that as blame already hitting the Dems and are betting that the number shifts more toward Democrats now that it is Dems in the Senate" that killed the House-passed spending bill.

Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and former Senate leadership aide, said his party believes it is on the "right side of history" in defending the DREAMers. He also pointed a finger at Trump for creating a "man-made crisis" by rescinding the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protected DREAMers.

And, he said, Trump has done nothing to forge relationships with Democrats.

"For all of the talk of Obama not reaching out to Republicans in that first year … he didn’t purposely alienate Republicans in the way that Trump has alienated Democrats," Mollineau said.

CORRECTION (Jan. 20, 2018, 1 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified the role of Mitch McConnell on second reference. He is the Senate majority leader, not the minority leader.