By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump issued an extraordinary challenge to his own party late Tuesday, threatening to shut down the government in a matter of weeks if Congress did not fund a wall on the southern border that was a signature promise of his campaign for the White House.
Trump followed up on that threat on Wednesday by going after a key Republican senator on Twitter who has been skeptical of building a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is also one of two Republican senators up for re-election next year in a swing state, and the president has put his finger on the scale toward a primary challenger, Kelli Ward.
On Tuesday night, he told a rowdy crowd in Phoenix, “If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.”
“We’re going to have our wall,” he added. “The American people voted for immigration control. We’re going to get that wall.”
Tuesday’s admonition sharpened a suggestion that Trump made early this year, in the wake of a budget agreement he grudgingly accepted even though it omitted money for the wall, that the U.S. needed “a good ‘shutdown’” this fall to force a partisan confrontation over federal spending. His campaign promise stressed that Mexico would pay for the border barrier, but that part of the promise seems to have dropped away.
Hard-line conservative nationalists such as Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist ousted from the White House last week, have counseled the president to take a hard line on wall funding to buck up his political base after the embarrassing defeat of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But the president’s Tuesday night salvo introduced fresh and potentially explosive irritant into his relationship with congressional Republicans, whose backing he badly needs in the coming weeks.
The president wants to push through a tax overhaul by year’s end, which would require Republicans to approve a budget to trigger special procedures – known as reconciliation – that would allow the package to pass the Senate with only 51 votes, instead of the 60 required to bring most legislation to an up-or-down vote.
A budget resolution is always difficult, but it will probably become entangled in another divisive issue, the debt ceiling: The Treasury Department has estimated that the government will reach its borrowing limit sometime in October, at which point Congress will have to vote to increase the debt limit to avoid a default.
Most pressing, the government will run out of money on Oct. 1 unless Congress acts to approve new government spending bills. It would probably be the first time a government shut down while under complete control of one party. But in that conflict, the president may have handed Senate Democrats the whip. They can now filibuster any spending bill that contains wall funding, forcing Republicans to strip out the money and challenge Trump to veto it.
On Wednesday, Democrats quickly signaled they were willing to do just that.
“If the president pursues this path, against the wishes of both Republicans and Democrats, as well as the majority of the American people, he will be heading toward a government shutdown which nobody will like and which won’t accomplish anything,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, called the president’s threat “the polar opposite of leadership,” and said government money should instead be spent on health care, education and job creation, among other pressing needs.
“If the president follows through on his threat to shut down the government, he and his enablers should be held fully accountable,” Lowey said.
Republicans, too, privately vented their dismay at the president’s tactics and language, which promised to further chill an already dysfunctional relationship between him and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader. The contest between Flake and Ward appears to have become something of a proxy fight between the two men.
White House aides had urged the president not to mention Flake by name at the rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, which Trump used as an opportunity to savage the media as unpatriotic and “sick,” angrily defend his response to racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and praise Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff whose aggressive immigration crackdowns led to a federal conviction for criminal contempt of court after he ignored a judge’s order to stop detaining people merely on suspicion of being unauthorized immigrants.
The president criticized Flake only obliquely in the speech – “Nobody knows who the hell he is,” Trump said – and waited until Wednesday morning to take aim at the senator on Twitter: “I love the Great State of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!”
He followed that message with one targeted at McConnell to change Senate rules that make most legislation subject to a filibuster that requires 60 votes to overcome.
McConnell and other Republican leaders have repeatedly rejected the idea of altering the rules. The majority leader noted in July that his problem in delivering to Trump a health care repeal and replace measure was his inability to muster 50 Republican votes in the Senate, not because of a Democrat-led filibuster.
Trump appears to be in a fighting mood. Before his exit, Bannon repeatedly warned Trump and John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, that September could be the breaking point for the Trump presidency – “a total meat grinder,” Bannon told them.
Conservatives will object to raising the debt ceiling unless it contains some provisions to help rein in government spending – an unlikely scenario. Instead, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and McConnell will have to rely on Democratic votes to pass the increase – and put the president in the awkward position of having to sign it despite repeatedly promising to tackle the country’s debt.
Bannon warned White House colleagues that that could send the conservative House Freedom Caucus into open revolt against the speaker.
To placate them, Bannon counseled, the White House must extract wall funding. The government funding resolution in late September is likely to contain money for two controversial items: cost-sharing subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and the border wall. Trump could probably live with signing a spending bill that contained money for the subsidies, White House aides said. But signing one that does not include a significant sum for the wall would enrage his political base.