That soft, shuffling sound you hear is Congressional Republicans stepping away from President Trump.
It’s hard to hear above the din from the Oval Office. But through their new spending compromise, GOP leaders signaled clearly that they, like Congressional Democrats, will no longer play border-wall make-believe with President Trump.
Trump sought the White House promising to build a “great wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico. Assailing previous presidents as ineffectual, he vowed to make Mexico pay for it.
GOP leaders always understood that pledge as fanciful, even as they cautiously avoided saying so out loud. Last December, when Trump changed his mind and chose a government shutdown over a bipartisan spending compromise, they reluctantly went along.
But 35 days of political pain, ending with Trump’s initial surrender last month, changed their calculations.
Conservative Republican negotiators – Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rep. Kay Granger of Texas – struck the deal with Democrats last night even as Trump roared about the wall in El Paso. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised swift action with a presidential endorsement.
“You’ve got to govern,” explained Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. He acknowledged it as an “incremental” deal that does not match Trump’s grandiose 2016 pledge.
When Trump launched his 2016 campaign, the U.S. government had constructed nearly 700 miles of barriers along the 2,000 mile border. That number remains unchanged today.
The new compromise adds another 55 miles. Those new barriers — financed by American taxpayers — will be limited to the same kinds of fencing built under Trump’s predecessors, not the new concrete wall or other “impenetrable” structure he had promised. American taxpayers will finance the $1.375-billion cost, well below the $5.7-billion the president had demanded.
Stuck between hard-core supporters and the majority Americans opposed to the wall and another shutdown, Trump today pronounced himself “not happy” — but didn’t threaten a veto. He lacks good choices.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter accused him of cowardice, calling the compromise his “Yellow New Deal.” Trump confidant Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor, denounced the “garbage compromise” Republican negotiators struck.
It won’t be the last one.
The Democratic takeover of the House fundamentally altered Washington’s power equation. And the back-to-back blows of mid-term election defeat and the shutdown have heightened the willingness of GOP lawmakers to distinguish between their own political interests and those of the president.
Republicans have shown it in multiple ways. They’ve joined Democrats in criticizing Trump’s hastily-declared pledge to withdraw US forces from Syria.
They’ve pursued bipartisan legislation to constrain Trump’s power to impose the trade tariffs that have rattled markets and raised consumer prices. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, implicitly rebuking the effects of the 2017 Trump tax cut he voted for, has echoed Democratic arguments in seeking to temper corporate stock buybacks.
Such intra-party distancing typically happens to presidents with 40% approval ratings. That more of it didn’t happen sooner is a testament to Trump’s grip on the GOP grassroots.
But Republicans face the risk of losing the Senate as well as the House in 2020. And the results of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, among other probes, threaten to further weaken Trump’s clout if not his ability to complete his term.
The president has reacted to his shrinking border wall options by insisting Congress can’t, and won’t, constrain him. Pretending in a different way, he tells supporters he’s already building it.
“Finish the wall,” declared signs at his El Paso rally. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is scouring budget accounts for money Congress directed to other priorities that Trump might shift toward a wall.
The president has also discussed declaring a national emergency to seize new wall funding powers. Underscoring the political winds of 2019, McConnell has warned against it.