- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2017

Stung by yet another “shutdown trap” that forced them to accede to nearly every Democratic demand in the $1 trillion spending bill, Republicans are scrambling to find a way out of their predicament before even bigger deadlines come due just months from now.

The urgency is palpable after President Trump — just days before his Friday signature on the bill to keep the government open through September — warned that Congress might need a “good shutdown” to get its act cleaned up.

His frustration showed after Republicans lost out on nearly every item on their priority list this year, including erasing funding for Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities, and making the first down payment on Mr. Trump’s border wall. Democrats got those and some 160 other “riders” knocked out of the bill by letting Republicans know that if they insisted on any, a shutdown would result — and Republicans would be blamed.

“We made it clear that if the government shut down, it would be on the Republicans’ backs,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told reporters. “That became the general consensus, and that gave us real leverage, even though we were in the minority.”

Mr. Schumer was confident because of the trap Republicans have set for themselves, having fought — and lost — shutdown showdowns in 1995 and 1996, and again in 2013, when House Republicans staged an ill-fated fight over Obamacare. Republicans also threatened shutdowns over Planned Parenthood in 2011 and over immigration in 2015.

With the public ready to pin the blame, Republicans have backed off each time and emerged with few triumphs.

“Republicans are terrified of being labeled the shutdown party, and that gives the Democrats all the leverage,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow on the budget at the Manhattan Institute.

It’s gotten to the point, Mr. Riedl said, where Democrats orchestrate shutdown talk, figuring frightened Republicans will allow Democrats to “extract concessions” Republicans would ordinarily never make — particularly when they control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Spending bills provide the most common battleground for shutdown talk, and another test is looming by Sept. 30. The even bigger deadline, however, is the federal government’s nearly $20 trillion debt limit, which the Treasury Department is already bumping up against.

Officials say the borrowing limit must be raised by October or November, or else the government will have to delay payments on some of its obligations — whether to creditors, employees, state and local governments or beneficiaries such as Social Security recipients.

Democrats have said they won’t accept any negotiations because the debt limit is sacrosanct.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Republicans don’t seem to be able to help themselves. He pointed to the health care debate, where conservatives flexed their muscle and dealt the Republican leadership an initial defeat, then wrangled concessions that moved the bill further to the right.

“We’re betting they’re going to overreach once again,” Mr. Manley said.

The disunity within the Republican Party has been a major factor in the shutdown showdowns. In 2013, a faction of conservatives defied party leaders and insisted on an Obamacare-related fight.

More recently, Republicans have been riven by a split between deficit hawks, who want to cut spending across the government, and the defense hawks, who say the military has been gnawed to the bone and needs a massive infusion of cash. The defense folks have repeatedly struck deals with Democrats, who agree to the Pentagon hikes in exchange for more domestic spending.

That was what happened last week, when Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans had to give up their plans to cut domestic spending and instead accepted increases to get their $15 billion surge in Pentagon money.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested that Republicans escaped the shutdown trap with Mr. Trump’s signature last week. He said that was proof that Republicans can work on spending bills.

But conservatives countered that to get there, Mr. Trump caved on his demands.

Solutions are tough to come by.

Analysts said one option would be for Republicans to pick a shutdown fight they can win by holding firm on an issue where the public is clearly on their side. But Democrats have been strategic in choosing their battles, such as allowing the massive hike in defense spending this year — though insisting the money be added to the deficit.

Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, has another plan. He has written a bill that would automatically continue funding should Congress not meet its deadline. That would remove the shutdown threat altogether.

But when Republicans tried to pass his plan several years back, nearly every Democrat voted against it.

Mr. Riedl, who was Mr. Portman’s economist at the time, said they had expected Democrats to try to negotiate terms of the bill but didn’t expect them to reject it outright.

“It seemed like they just weren’t interested in anything that would stop a government shutdown,” he said.

Another solution would be to pass all or most of the 12 annual spending bills on time. The more budgets that are approved, the fewer departments and agencies that face a funding lapse at the deadline. But Republican disunity and Democratic strategy have left Congress unable to pass even a single bill by the deadline over the past eight years, forcing an all-or-nothing showdown at some point.

Given those roadblocks, Michael McKenna, a Republican Party strategist, said the most likely change to defuse the shutdown trap is to nix the filibuster, which is the key tool Democrats have used.

“The bottom line is as long as the minority can exercise a veto over the preferences of the majority, they’re going to keep doing it,” he said.

He also said Republicans should get over their fear of a shutdown. He added that shutdowns have never amounted to more than headaches.

“In every instance, there has not been riots in the streets; nobody launched a nuclear war on us,” he said. “There’s no data that says [Republicans] should be concerned politically.”

Mr. Trump may agree.

The day after Republicans erupted in anger over the spending deal, he said Democrats’ use of the filibuster was becoming a problem.

“Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” he tweeted.

Mr. Manley said that only strengthens the trap for Republicans.

“If you take the president literally at his word, there is no way out, and he’s committed them to a shutdown in the fall, which has got to petrify leaders in the House and Senate,” he said.

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