Democrats Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer will face off against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the next two years in a divided government. These three-dimensional grandmasters are now in control of the Congressional chessboard.
Democrats made their opening move on the first day of the 116th Congress. The House passed several bills: a continuing resolution, funding the Department of Homeland Security for one month (there’s no funding for the Wall); the other bills, reopening the rest of the government. The bills would end the two week-old government shutdown, and the Wall would get kicked down the road.
The scene now shifts to the GOP-controlled Senate under McConnell’s control. McConnell has 53 Senators in the caucus and a joker in MIke Pence’s tie-breaker. He can afford to lose only three votes. Two of them, Susan Collins (ME) and Corey Gardner (CO), have said that they would break ranks over the shutdown. If another defects, the measure would pass the Senate and go over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. McConnell won’t put the measure up for a vote because Trump would either veto it, thwarting the will of a bipartisan Congress; or refuse to veto it, infuriating his base. Ordinarily, McConnell would be happy to see the bill lying on the floor of Senate, the life draining out of it. Because Trump has agreed to take responsibility for the shutdown, each time a government employee misses a paycheck, it will be held against an insensitive, out-of-touch Chief Executive and a tyrannical party leader who has placed party before national interests. McConnell may be boxed in this time.
Naturally, Trump is trying to lower expectations. He has reduced his redoubtable border wall to the national security equivalent of aluminum siding. The negotiation went off the rails when he welched on his 2017 promise to the Democrats to take action on the Dreamers (DACA). They don’t consider him a trustworthy negotiating partner. As a result, they won’t make any concessions until Trump commits himself unconditionally.
Trump does have a way out of this double-bind. He could negotiate a strong border security package without a wall but with much heavier commitments otherwise. Democrats would be obliged to commit more than $5 billion to the package, and they would lose some of their leverage on DACA. Trump could crow that he got more money than the Democrats were willing to pay, and he got better border security. He might have to make a firm commitment on DACA. Then he’d have to sell that package to his base. In essence, he would need superior negotiating and political skills to get there. He hasn’t demonstrated that he possesses them. Unless he’s willing to deputize someone to be the dealmaker, he will continue to get outmaneuvered.
That leaves the Congressional leaders. Eventually, McConnell will need to sit down with Pelosi and Schumer. They’ll put together a deal, and then they will have to back Trump into accepting it.