First, the president denied a statement from his chief of staff yesterday that his views on a Mexican border wall had “evolved” (despite the fact that he has, in fact, changed his position). Then he threw sand, a wrench, an entire toolbox into the gears of his party’s efforts to pass a temporary spending bill to keep the government open past Friday night.
The Republican strategy, crafted by congressional leadership, was to pass a bill that would receive enough Republican support to overcome unified Democratic resistance in the House and then jam Senate Democrats into either grudgingly voting for the bill or forcing a politically fraught shutdown over protections for undocumented immigrants.
A key piece of this strategy was to include long-term funding for Chip, a health insurance programme for children from low-income families, in the measure. It’s something most Republicans support and Senate Democrats would be reluctant to be seen voting against. The glide path to a temporary budget extension, while bumpy, was realistic.
Instead, the president shot down the Chip provision in a Thursday morning tweet.
“Chip should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 day, or short term, extension!” he wrote.
The White House press shop has since scrambled to insist the president supports the funding legislation, but in the meantime hardline House conservatives are dragging their feet and some Republican senators have said they’re done with stopgap measures.
If they stick to their guns, Democrats will have all the cover they need to blow up the Republican plan and put immigration back on the table as a government shutdown looms at midnight on Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are insisting that it is congressional Democrats who are endangering efforts to keep the government open and reach long-term solutions on military spending, the federal budget, immigration and Chip.
Those types of assertions, however, are much more difficult when the president isn’t reading from the same script, and members of the party – on the right and the middle – are pulling in different directions.
In the end, this could be a test of exactly how much influence the president, with his early morning tweets and contradictory public statements, wields over the legislative process. On Wednesday, Mr McConnell said he had no idea what the president wanted out of an immigration compromise.
“As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels,” Mr McConnell said.
That’s a remarkable statement coming from a high-ranking Republican in the midst of a budget crisis. And the reality is that, whether they know what the president wants or not, Congress needs to do something by the end of Friday to prevent a government shutdown.
At present, Republicans – who control the White House and Congress – seem all over the map on how to stop everything from grinding to a halt.
When, in just over 10 months, the party will be making a pitch to voters across the US that you should be entrusted to continue running the country, that’s a very dangerous place to be.
Democrats will certainly be quick to point out that, last May, the president tweeted that he thought the country needed a “good shutdown” to fix the Washington mess.
He might just get his wish.