Noah Rothman  Trump's shutdown gamble now hinges on a wall many Republicans were never truly sold on

For two years, the GOP had many opportunities to fund Trump’s wall both in part or in whole and it declined on every occasion.
President Donald Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaks to reporters in Washington on Jan. 9, 2019.
President Donald Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaks to reporters in Washington on Jan. 9, 2019.Jim Lo Sclazo / EPA
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By Noah Rothman, associate editor of COMMENTARY magazine

On Friday, January 11, a dubious milestone was reached. We are now living through what has become the longest government shutdown in American history. This seemingly intractable stalemate has created the illusion of partisan consensus. Democrats seem united in opposition to President Donald Trump’s demand for a small amount of funding that would be used to construct portions of the president’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans, meanwhile, are posturing as though they have always supported Trump’s quest for the boundary. Neither is true.

In truth, though, it is the GOP that is showing more serious signs of cracking — and that’s to be expected.

While Democrats have more incentive to hold firm and wait for the growing pain of the shutdown to pressure Republicans into folding, there are signs that some more vulnerable liberal lawmakers are getting antsy. “If I am getting comments and contact from my constituents expressing concern that the Democrats are not prioritizing security, then I think we can do better,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat representing a district Trump won in 2016. Democratic sources who spoke with Politico conveyed growing anxiety among the party’s newest elected officials over their leaders’ refusal to grant any funding for a border barrier even as they profess support for provisions like new service roads, port personnel, and technological security enhancements — spending that would well exceed the $5.7 billion sought by the White House.

In truth, though, it is the GOP that is showing more serious signs of cracking — and that’s to be expected. The Republican Party was never united in support of Donald Trump’s wall in the first place.

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Less than a month after Trump took the oath of office, Republicans were already backing away from the prospect of a border wall — because of the price tag and lack of spending offsets, to which many Republican lawmakers objected, but also because there was disagreement over the essential utility of a physical partition. “I don't think we're just going to be able to solve border security with a physical barrier because people can come under, around it, and through it,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn told reporters in February 2017. “If you only build a wall, only a ‘wall’ without using technology, individuals, drones, observations, etc., you're not going to secure the border,” the late Sen. John McCain agreed.

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Some Republicans had not warmed to the venture a month later, as a standoff over wall appropriations in a bill to fund the government loomed. “The border wall is probably not a smart investment,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in early 2017. Though he supported funding a wall as part of a legislative package that would also provide young undocumented immigrants with a pathway to legal status, Graham and other Republicans were prioritizing increased military spending over border security.

The White House’s March 2017 request for $7.5 billion in spending for border security initiatives, including $4 billion to be allocated to wall-related planning, construction, and legal costs related to the reclamation of private land, generated little support among Republicans. In late April 2017, the Wall Street Journal surveyed border state lawmakers from both parties and found that “not a single member of the House or Senate representing the region expressed support for the funding request.” They noted, however, that Sen. Ted Cruz “backs the overall idea of a wall,” but would not commit to support Trump’s specific request. A few months later, USA Today Network polled all 534 lawmakers in both the House and the Senate and found that just 69 of 292 Republicans — one-quarter of the GOP conference — supported Trump’s request for $1.6 billion to begin wall construction.

Republicans spent the summer of Trump’s first year in office avoiding a vote on funding for the wall. By Labor Day, the GOP’s strategy to keep the government open and pass tax reform legislation meant pushing the border security debate into the next year. “We have to deal with Harvey, we have the debt ceiling, we have a continuing resolution, which will be just about a three-month continuing resolution,” then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in September 2017. “So you will deal with the wall a little later in the year.”

They didn’t.

In January 2018, amid a Democrat-inaugurated government shutdown over the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries, it was the GOP who put funding for the wall on the back burner. A border wall was, after all, just "one of the three legs of this three-legged stool," said Rep. Mark Meadows, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a supporter of Trump’s approach to border security. “I'm glad to hear that there is some movement there, but there's a couple of other legs of that stool that have to be put forth.”

Democrats eventually relented and the government reopened on Republican terms, but the GOP still could not bring itself to accommodate Trump’s request for a border wall. In February 2018, a compromise plan to provide $25 billion for border enforcement, including a wall, while providing a pathway to citizenship for all 1.8 million DREAMers also failed. Trump opposed that plan, but it nevertheless received 54 votes in the Senate (it needed 60).

By contrast, a Trump-backed bill that included restrictions on family-based “chain migration” and ended the visa lottery system received just 39 “yes” votes. Several months later, a similar measure came before the House, though without Trump’s explicit support. The so-called Goodlatte bill included funding for the wall as well as a variety of other border security provisions. After 41 House Republicans voted against it, it failed to garner majority support.

By the fall of last year, with elections looming, it was clear that the GOP would not fund Trump’s wall, but Trump seemed to be the last to know.

By the fall of last year, with elections looming, it was clear that the GOP would not fund Trump’s wall, but Trump seemed to be the last to know. “Republican leaders are more focused on urging Trump to delay a fight for the wall than on fighting for it themselves,” the Washington Post reported in September 2018. “Congress is working to pass a short-term spending bill that would avert a government shutdown Oct. 1 and punt a showdown over wall funding into December, after the November midterms.” This effort by Republicans to avoid a controversial vote on a contentious campaign promise was an attempt to avoid making a bad political environment worse, but Trump insisted on framing the election as a referendum on his policies and, specifically, the border wall. Democrats went on to have their best midterm election showing since the year Richard Nixon resigned.

For two years, Republicans had many opportunities to fund Trump’s wall both in part or in whole and they declined on every occasion. In failing to approve the wall, Congressional Republicans rendered a negative verdict on Trump’s signature policy proposal. The GOP was right to be skeptical of what a wall could accomplish. But they should not be allowed to pretend that they have always been steadfast supporters of this project now that a Democratic majority in the House provides them with political cover.