By ALAN FRAM
WASHINGTON (AP) — ‘Twas four days before Christmas, and all through the House — and Senate — not a shutdown solution was stirring and lawmakers, they did grouse. The chaos that is President Donald Trump’s White House seemed to engulf the Capitol on Friday. While the workings of Congress are often tumultuous, especially as adjournment nears, things seemed even more out of kilter than usual as a partial government shutdown loomed just hours away.
Senators who’d gleefully left town earlier this week thinking their year’s work was done flew glumly back for votes they hoped would keep agencies from shuttering at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The usually laconic Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left a meeting with GOP senators to eagerly show reporters a button that said, “Senate Cranky Coalition.”
Virtually all senators, McConnell said, “are a part of this coalition. Yeah, almost unanimous agreement.”
None traveled further for more fleeting gratification than Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, who flew home to Hawaii, treated his Twitter followers to a selfie capturing part of his 17 minutes with his family, then zoomed back to Washington. “Wheels down IAD ready to vote no on this stupid wall,” he tweeted at dawn as his plane landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. Another senator, Republican Mike Rounds, said he’d been home in South Dakota for four hours Thursday when he learned he’d need to head back to Washington.
He was among several senators from both parties who said they left Washington after being given the impression that the House would approve a Senate-passed bill keeping government open and that Trump would sign it. “We figured they would have a battle, show that they were not happy about it but would move forward,” Rounds said. House members were also in town Friday and lawmakers did not know when they’d be able to leave for Christmas and New Year’s Day. As if symbolizing the Capitol’s dampened holiday spirit, a worker was seen hauling away a Christmas tree, wrapped in plastic, in a blue recycling dumpster.
Friday afternoon, top administration officials met in the Capitol meeting with congressional leaders in hopes of resolving the standoff. To kill time, the Senate kept a procedural roll call vote open for more than four hours. The House alternated between long recesses and votes on minor bills, including one renaming the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Florida as the Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. In this latest version of Congress’ increasingly frequent shutdown showdowns, the sore spot was Trump’s demand for $5 billion in taxpayer money to start building a border wall he’s repeatedly said Mexico would finance.
Aware of polls showing the wall and a shutdown over it are widely disliked except by loyal Trump supporters, Democrats had little reason to assent. A bill bearing those funds that would also keep agencies functioning into February was stalled. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrapped the shutdown standoff together with the stock market, Trump’s abrupt pullout of U.S. troops from Syria and the sudden resignation of
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “This may have been the most chaotic week of what’s undoubtedly the most chaotic presidency ever in the history of the United States,” Schumer said.
Trump took ownership of the shutdown last week, proclaiming on live television that he’d be “proud” to close the government over his demands for the wall. But most congressional Republicans wanted to avoid a shutdown in the final days of their two-year lock on the White House and Congress. They were relieved earlier this week when Trump seemed to signal
he’d sign a bill temporarily keeping government afloat without any wall money. But after the Senate approved just such a bill, conservative pundits and hard-right House members
rebelled. Trump reversed himself again and demanded the wall funds and threatened, “We’re totally prepared for a very long shutdown.”
That caused disgust, dissension and dismay among many on Capitol Hill. And that was just Republicans. “This is like a juvenile,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a frequent Trump critic who is retiring. “And the reason we’re here again, is we have a couple of talk radio hosts that get the president spun up.” “I’ve never seen somebody more scared of their base than the president,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., another Trump detractor who chose to not seek re-election. Top Senate Republicans journeyed to the White House Friday to figure out their next move. One GOP senator who didn’t attend but spoke to some who did said the session left Trump’s formula for success — well, a bit murky.
“Mostly nuclear option and the shutdown’s acceptable to him would be the two takeaway points, I think,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “And the wall matters and it will be beautiful when built. So there were three takeaway points.” The nuclear option, by the way, is shorthand for changing rules in the narrowly divided Senate so Democrats couldn’t kill legislation by forcing a bill to get 60 votes to pass. Changing those rules is opposed by many senior GOP senators and McConnell has said many times that he lacks the votes to do it, so it was never a real-world option for Trump.
Meanwhile, the Capitol Lounge near the Capitol was offering shutdown-themed drinks beginning after midnight Friday. A cocktail with tequila was dubbed “Mexico Will Pay for This,” while another was called the “Border Wall Banger.”