Five key questions as a government shutdown looms

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office in Washington. With a budget deadline looming, Trump plans a whirlwind of activities seeking to highlight accomplishments while putting fresh pressure on congressional Democrats to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, even if that pressure risks a possible government shutdown [Associated Press]
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office in Washington. With a budget deadline looming, Trump plans a whirlwind of activities seeking to highlight accomplishments while putting fresh pressure on congressional Democrats to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, even if that pressure risks a possible government shutdown [Associated Press]
Published April 24 2017
Updated April 25 2017

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders and White House officials have steered the nation to the brink of a government shutdown that virtually all parties agree would be a terrible idea.

While lawmakers seem eager to forge a deal before government funding expires Friday, the Trump administration wants to use the deadline as a point of leverage that Democrats — and at least a few Republicans — do not believe they have, raising the prospects of a shutdown that had seemed unlikely.

President Donald Trump's team is straining to demonstrate progress on key campaign promises such as money for a border wall and increased military spending, hoping to project success before Trump's 100th day in office on Saturday. But any measure will require bipartisan support, and Democrats are unlikely to budge.

The standoff continues a Washington trend, as banal now as it is nonsensical to veterans of the Capitol: legislative cliff-jumping in the name of brinkmanship, frustration or some combination thereof, with no clear endgame.

RELATED COVERAGE: Democrats say Trump can avert shutdown risk if he relents on wall

The last government shutdown was in 2013, encapsulating an era of bitter partisanship and Republican opposition to President Barack Obama. The distinction this time is that the Oval Office, Senate and House are controlled by the same party.

The confrontation also comes as Trump has said he will reveal a "massive" tax cut proposal on Wednesday and has suggested advancing a retooled version of the health care bill that failed last month in the House.

In Congress, where the completion of even one major task at a time can overwhelm its institutional bandwidth, elected officials remain highly skeptical of their own capacity to juggle successfully.

Here are the dynamics at play as members return from a two-week recess:

WILL TRUMP GET HIS WALL?

Since his election, Trump has settled on an amended version of a signature campaign pledge: Mexico will pay for the wall on the U.S. southern border. At some point. In some way. But late Monday, Trump stepped back from demanding a down payment for his border wall in must-past spending legislation, potentially removing a major obstacle to a bipartisan deal just days ahead of a government shutdown deadline.

Trump told a gathering of around 20 conservative media reporters Monday evening that he would be willing to return to the wall funding issue in September, according to two people who were in the room. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the get-together, which was not originally intended to be on the record, the Associated Press said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who has a key role providing Democratic votes to pass the legislation, welcomed Trump's reported shift on the wall.

The stance had complicated congressional negotiations that were, by many accounts, going relatively smoothly. Some Republicans have long chafed at the idea of shutting down the government over Trump's border wall or other administration priorities such as beefed-up immigration enforcement and military spending, even as most Republicans express at least measured support for these goals.

The president's chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said Sunday that the White House expected Trump's priorities to be reflected in the final agreement.

"We expect a massive increase in military spending. We expect money for border security in this bill," Priebus said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And it ought to be. Because the president won overwhelmingly. And everyone understands the border wall was part of it."

WHO WANTS TO OWN A SHUTDOWN?

In 2013, at a time of peak conservative fury at Obama, some Republicans did not seem to mind positioning themselves as the faces of the shutdown, which supplied a soapbox for ambitious hard-liners like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

This time, at least so far, no one seems to want any fingerprints on an impasse.

A shutdown hardly means that all of government ceases functioning: Many thousands of federal workers would be furloughed or asked to work without pay, but essential services like federal law enforcement work and emergency work would continue. Still, there seems to be little public patience for another round of Washington dysfunction.

Republicans in Congress appear keenly aware that a shutdown would be blamed largely on them, despite Trump's attempts to shift responsibility to Democrats.

And while many are unlikely to say so publicly, some Democrats would plainly relish the political upside of a unified Republican government ushering in Trump's 100th day by failing to keep the lights on.

"Shutdown is not a desired end," Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director, said on Fox News Sunday. "It's not a tool. It's not something that we want to have."

But, he added, "we want our priorities funded."

WILL HEALTH COVERAGE BE AFFECTED?

Seeking to squeeze Democrats, Mulvaney has offered a trade of sorts: $1 of subsidy payments under the Affordable Care Act — paid to insurers to lower deductibles and other costs for low-income consumers who buy plans through the law's marketplaces — in exchange for every $1 to pay for the border wall that the president wants to build.

Trump has threatened to withhold the subsidy payments as a way to compel Democrats to negotiate. On Sunday, he wrote on Twitter that Obama's health law was in "serious trouble."

"The Dems need big money to keep it going — otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought," the president wrote.

Under former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House of Representatives sued the Obama administration to challenge the legality of the subsidy payments, saying Congress never appropriated money for them. A court ruled in the House's favor, and the case is on appeal.

Democrats, fearful of what could happen to insurance markets if the uncertainty about the subsidy payments continues, want the payments to be funded as part of the agreement on a spending measure to keep the government open.

Insurers have warned that without the payments, they would have to raise rates significantly for plans on the marketplaces or pull out altogether.

Schumer's office has rejected Mulvaney's border wall trade, noting that Trump said Mexico would pay for the wall anyway.

WILL THE MINERS GET A DEAL?

When he ran for president, Trump presented himself as a champion of coal miners, promising to put them back to work.

Whether or not that long-term goal is realistic, a narrower issue involving retired coal miners looms as yet another sticking point this week.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other Democrats flirted with shutting down the government in December because of a dispute over health benefits for retired miners who were set to lose their coverage.

They ultimately relented, and the short-term spending bill passed at the time extended health benefits for the retired miners through this month. But now lawmakers from coal-heavy states want a permanent resolution to the issue.

WILL CONGRESS PUNT FOR A WEEK?

There is an escape hatch, at least temporarily: With the Senate returning Monday and the House on Tuesday, congressional leaders might give themselves some breathing room.

Lawmakers could pass a short-term spending bill that would keep the government open in the interim, perhaps another week, while a longer-term measure is finalized.

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