The federal government has been partially shut down since Saturday, but since roughly two-thirds of federal workers are not directly affected, and it comes amid holidays, planned vacations, and the general low ebb of national life between Christmas and New Year’s, it isn’t biting very deeply right now. The estimated 380,000 furloughed federal employees assume from previous experience that they will be paid retroactively once the shutdown ends, so aside from cash-flow issues, they are in essence receiving paid vacation.
That, and the eternal and largely symbolic partisan gap over the president’s cartoonish border-wall funding demands are making this particular government shutdown one in which no one is racing to achieve a resolution. Having flipped and flopped over his determination to obtain $5 billion in border wall funding (accompanied by flips and flops over the very definition of “wall”), the president is at present making a show of resolution, using the impasse once again to deepen his solidarity with the wall-loving “base” of his party, whose tribunes were dismayed when it looked like he might cave to keep the despised government open.
Technically, the conflict is between Trump and the Senate Democrats, who can block any appropriations measure to end the shutdown. But as the dispute drags on, the views of the House Democrats (who will take control of the lower chamber on January 3) are coming into play. And that’s why jibes from Nancy Pelosi, like one she imparted in a USA Today interview published Tuesday, are central to the psychological warfare in Washington:
Pelosi mocked the shifting message from the White House about whether Trump wanted a “wall,” a fence or some other structure.
“First of all, the fact … that he says, ‘We’re going to build a wall with cement, and Mexico’s going to pay for it’ while he’s already backed off of the cement — now he’s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something, I’m not sure where he is,” Pelosi said.
In theory, it should be possible to strike a compromise between the $5 billion in border security funding Trump has demanded and the $1.6 billion (the current funding level) Democrats have offered. But neither side at present has much of an incentive to take the lead. As he has been for most of his presidency, Trump is focused on “the base” to the exclusion of the electorate as a whole, and Democrats figure Republicans will get the bulk of the blame for the inconveniences, the suffering (which an extended shutdown will produce), and the sheer idiocy associated with a partially shuttered government.
For now, if a deal’s in the works, everyone is being unusually quiet about it. Congress is not in session this week, and it would take a minimum of 24 hours to reconvene it to ratify any agreement. The few media people on duty in Washington are focused on the Mattis departure, the shaky economy, Trump’s fury at the Fed, and year-end features. So don’t expect any imminent breakthroughs, and if you’re a furloughed federal employee, let’s hope you put some money away for precisely this contingency.