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Trump May Be Spoiling For A Shutdown Fight, But It Could Spell Disaster In 2018

President Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress in February. After the compromise spending bill failed to fulfill all his budget requests, the president appears to be gearing up for a fight in September.
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President Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress in February. After the compromise spending bill failed to fulfill all his budget requests, the president appears to be gearing up for a fight in September.

The White House and Congress reached a deal last week to keep the government open — at least until this fall.

But in reality, the compromise may well have just kicked the can down the road until September, when both sides may be spoiling for a fight amid the specter of a government shutdown.

The spending bill didn't give President Trump or congressional Republicans and Democrats everything they wanted. The GOP got more defense spending, while some agencies whose funding the White House had wanted to cut, such as the National Institutes of Health, actually got a boost.

But the absence of some of the president's major priorities — namely his highly touted border wall — led Trump to take to Twitter to hint that in five months, he may not be in such a conciliatory mood. "Our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!" he tweeted.

On Sunday, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney didn't knock down that threat on CBS's Face theNation:

"What we just did this week was fine and passable but not ideal. The appropriations, the spending process, Congress using the power of the purse has been broken here in Washington for more than 10 years. And I think a good shutdown would be one that could help fix that. It's part of that overall drain-the-swamp mentality about Washington, D.C. This president is willing to think outside the box and do things differently around here in order to change Washington. And if that comes to a shutdown in September, so be it."

A "good" shutdown?

That not-so-veiled threat from the president and his staff is likely to give many Republicans the beginnings of heartburn. The last time the government shuttered, in October 2013, polls showed that it was the GOP that shouldered the brunt of the public's blame after a 16-day fiscal standoff over funding for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey during the shutdown showed that voters blamed Republicans over then-President Barack Obama by a 22-point margin — a worse outcome for the GOP than during the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns.

After the government reopened, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Americans blamed Republicans instead of Obama by 24 points. And the GOP's approval rating took a bruising hit, too. According to Gallup, the party's rating hit record lows in the wake of the shutdown, dropping to a 28 percent favorable rating.

"The government shutdown in October 2013 gave the Republican Party a huge hit from which it took more than a year to recover," said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The drop in the Republican Party's favorable rating was dramatic. We were fortunate that we had a year to repair the damage."

Looking back, it may seem as if there were few electoral consequences for Republicans as they went on to win victories in the 2014 midterms, including winning back the Senate.

But the shutdown also happened at the same time as the disastrous rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. While that got overshadowed temporarily amid the shutdown, the midterms eventually returned to being a referendum on Obama and his policies — an electoral savior for the GOP.

If a shutdown happens again, it's Republicans who are in sole control of both the White House and Congress. And now they have a president whose approval ratings are at historic lows after his first 100 days in office and who energizes the Democratic base in a way that could prove incredibly problematic for the GOP in 2018.

A president's first midterm elections is usually a referendum on his tenure so far, and historically, a president's party has almost always lost seats — an average of 29, as NPR's Domenico Montanaro pointed out last month. Coupled with backlash the GOP is already feeling against its health care bill and the historical trends against the party, adding a shutdown on top of that could be catastrophic.

"Most of the wisdom of pollsters comes from looking at history of past actions, and all the history of the last government shutdown suggests that it was very bad news for Republicans," said Ayres. "There's no reason to think that the result will be any different in the future, especially since we control the entire government."

What's on the table?

Even without the threat of a stalemate looming over the talks, the list of things Congress and the White House have to agree on is substantial.

As Politico noted, the Sept. 30 deadline is likely to coincide with a needed vote to raise the debt ceiling, in addition to reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration law, the children's health insurance program and federal flood insurance.

The White House will release its full budget later this month, which is sure to include more of the priorities Trump formally laid out in March in his initial fiscal year 2018 blueprint. In the recent spending bill, the president got an increase in defense spending — though only about half of what he wanted — but the domestic spending cuts he had sought didn't happen this time around.

In five months, it's unclear how much political capital the White House will have to try to engage in those fights and how the health care bill — if it passes the Senate — might factor into that.

But the president will be wanting a win on his spending priorities, looking to fulfill his campaign promises not just to build the border wall but also to "drain the swamp." While a shutdown may be cheered by his base as a way to "stick it" to Washington, the implications could be far-reaching and imperil the rest of Trump's first term if it causes significant backlash in the 2018 midterms.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.