In a divided Washington, Congress averted a shutdown — but at a price

In the end Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave in to President Trump’s demand on a national emergency declaration.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press/File 2017
In the end Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave in to President Trump’s demand on a national emergency declaration.

WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, went to bed Wednesday night cautiously optimistic that a shutdown crisis that had stretched back to December had finally ended.

Then President Trump awoke in a rage Thursday, feeling cornered into accepting a bipartisan funding deal struck earlier in the week that would deprive him once again of money for his long-promised wall along the Southwestern border. Conservative commentators who had been cajoled into accepting the deal Wednesday were breaking their silence on Thursday.

By midmorning, after a particularly unpleasant meeting with the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, the president was threatening to torpedo the deal, according to two people briefed on the exchange. Several hours and several phone calls later, McConnell had persuaded Trump to once again agree to sign the bill to avert another government shutdown looming at midnight Friday.


But persuasion came at a price: The president would declare a national emergency to try to secure wall funding without congressional approval, he told the majority leader — and McConnell would have to back him.

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“I indicated I’m going to support the national emergency declaration,” McConnell said Thursday afternoon from the Senate floor, mumbling and visibly weary after his conversation with the president.

“You are rude!” barked Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who had not finished a floor speech when his leader interrupted him.

It was a fitting moment for a surreal, discordant day.

McConnell’s concession, on the heels of the president’s bigger capitulation over wall funding, capped a wrenching month of political realignment, as Trump’s power has waned in the face of a divided Congress and his understanding of the Constitution’s separation of powers has been challenged. A 35-day government shutdown, the largest in the nation’s history, had depleted his party’s political reserves and made another impasse unthinkable.


After the last shutdown, the majority leader appeared ready for some normalcy on Capitol Hill. The decision by McConnell; Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader; and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint a 17-member conference committee to produce a bill that would fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year effectively sidelined the White House from the talks, according to congressional aides from both parties.

Largely absent was Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who bragged that he was instrumental in securing a bipartisan criminal justice bill last year but who aggravated Republicans and Democrats alike in December by advising the president to embrace the shutdown.

Kushner was present in the Oval Office for a few meetings between Trump and Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, according to a congressional aide. But Kushner, who has fashioned himself as the Trump White House’s master dealmaker, said he was stepping back to focus on a far more ambitious project, Middle East peace, according to two senior administration officials.

Absent, too, was Vice President Mike Pence, whom the president consistently undercut in December during the first round of shutdown talks when he offered compromise solutions. Republican senators repeatedly questioned the vice president on whether he was speaking for himself or the president when he weighed in on topics related to the negotiations.

Then, as negotiators closed in on a deal, Pence flew away — for a trip to Europe.


Left to their own devices, congressional negotiators began their work in earnest on Jan. 29, when Representative Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, convened a meeting of party lawmakers in Schumer’s ornate office to settle on a unified strategy.

They agreed to table some of the most complex immigration issues, including the fate of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, to focus on keeping the mileage and funding for any border barrier as stingy as possible, according to Democratic aides.

Lowey and Shelby had little difficulty arriving at a general range for barrier funding. Both sides agreed to authorize $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion for fencing, which wasn’t a hard call considering both chambers of Congress had already passed legislation last year authorizing similar expenditures — only to be rejected by Trump. They ended up approving $1.375 billion for 55 miles of steel-post fencing, 10 miles less than the deal that they had reached over the summer — and that the president had rejected.

By Monday night, the negotiators had reached an agreement.

That is when McConnell’s troubles really began.

McConnell, burned by the last round of negotiations that led to the shutdown in December, concluded that none of Trump’s previous emissaries to Capitol Hill could be trusted to speak for a president prone to changing his position on a whim.

McConnell viewed his role as equal parts cajoler and instructor. He patiently (and fruitlessly) argued against the emergency declaration, which he sees as usurping congressional authority to splinter Senate Republicans. He also used the check-ins to collect intelligence about Trump’s mindset.

To sell the president on the deal, he argued that it was a “big down payment” on the wall and offered to support moves by the president to transfer some funding from other agencies to border barrier projects if he ditched the emergency declaration. But the core of his case, people close to McConnell said, was the argument that the deal reached by negotiators was actually a “victory” over Pelosi, thanks to his success in fighting attempts to reduce the number of detention beds.

Trump never really bought it.

But McConnell is nothing if not adaptable. Early Thursday, McConnell gave in to Trump’s demand on the state of emergency, hoping that his willingness to compromise would keep the president from rejecting the bill. It worked.