Big Decisions Pose Big Dilemmas for GOP Leaders

 Unless Congress approves a budget bill, the federal government’s non-essential functions will shut down April 28. Congress also needs to raise the national debt ceiling, which was reached in mid-March. Passing both may require GOP congressional leaders to spurn their own conservative members, rebuff President Trump’s budget requests, including for a border wall, and cut deals with Democrats.

 Unless Congress approves a budget bill, the federal government’s non-essential functions will shut down April 28. Congress also needs to raise the national debt ceiling, which was reached in mid-March. Passing both may require GOP congressional leaders to spurn their own conservative members, rebuff President Trump’s budget requests, including for a border wall, and cut deals with Democrats.

The federal government has never shut down over a budget battle while one party controlled the White House, House, and Senate. With funding for the government set to expire April 28, President Trump and GOP leaders in Congress face a looming deadline – and big political decisions – to avoid making the wrong kind of history.

Legislation to keep open the government’s doors follows on the heels of the failure in the House to repeal and replace Obamacare because of defections from the conservative House Freedom Caucus. There is no guarantee House conservatives won't balk at voting for a government spending bill, which would force GOP leaders to turn to Democrats for the votes to win passage.

The federal government also reached its $19.9 trillion debt ceiling March 16, which has forced US Treasury officials to engage in makeshift money maneuvers. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has urged Congress to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible. Conservative political defections are even more likely on this legislation.

There is no way to hide the GOP political rift that hinders the party's ability to move major legislation despite controlling both houses. Trump may have aggravated the rift by politically threatening Freedom Caucus members who refused to vote for the American Health Care Act.

Relations between Democrats and Republicans aren’t exactly cozy, either. Trump has Democrats for a “witch hunt” on his and his team’s potential ties to Russian interests that sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Democrats universally dislike Trump’s budget outline that calls for deep cuts in a wide range of discretionary federal spending while beefing up the Pentagon budget and paying for Trump’s border wall.

Senate Democrats are lining up to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with the backing of Trump, has threatened to change Senate rules to allow a simple majority up or down vote on Grouch’s nomination, which could sour any bipartisan negotiations on budget reconciliation or the debt ceiling. Left-leaning Democrats are spoiling for a showdown to demonstrate Republicans hold the levers of power, but have no consensus on how to use them.

Senate leaders are working on an omnibus spending bill to fund government through the end of September and could be voted on by April 24. But this is the kind of take-it-or-leave-it measure House conservatives hate and are unlikely to support.

Senate Republicans also have to juggle Trump’s last-minute request for supplemental funding, with $3 billion for additional border security, including $1.5 billion to start construction of the border wall. Trump also wants $30 billion for defense programs and proposed partially offsetting those increases with $18 billion in cuts to popular domestic programs. This would be toxic to gaining Democratic support for an omnibus spending bill.

That puts Republicans in the political bind of rebuffing their President and appealing to enough Democrats in the Senate and House to prevent a government shutdown or acceding to Trump’s request and letting the chips fall where they may. The latter strategy would allow Trump and GOP congressional leaders to blame Democrats for the shutdown, but that could seem lame for a party in control of government.

Congressional Republicans may choose to work with Democrats, ignore Trump’s budget requests and let Trump rail at Democrats, recognizing that a political dust-up over the budget could make approval of a debt ceiling increase even more politically challenging. Signs that GOP leaders will look to Democrats include House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement that defunding of Planned Parenthood would not be part of a budget bill.

The debt ceiling bill raises other big-ticket policy questions, such as a major tax cut and a $1 trillion infrastructure package Trump has pushed. Democrats have political reasons to find middle ground on both tax and infrastructure measures, but they are unlikely to support what Trump wants, which means GOP leaders might be forced to choose between Trump and the Democratic support they need to raise the debt ceiling. 

All this is occurring while pressure is intensifying to get to the bottom of Trump’s Russian connections amid daily drips that raise more suspicions and contribute to declining favorability ratings for Trump himself.

On the political campaign stump, Trump bragged about his deal-making ability. The political dynamics converging on Capitol Hill on budget, debt ceiling, taxation, infrastructure spending and even a Supreme Court nominee could mean big decisions will be made in a room while Trump is left cooling his heels in the hallway.