Reporter's Notebook: Amid Kavanaugh drama, Trump quietly signs bill to avert government shutdown

Reporter's Notebook: Amid Kavanaugh drama, Trump quietly signs bill to avert government shutdown
Reporter's Notebook: Amid Kavanaugh drama, Trump quietly signs bill to avert government shutdown

Where was Flake?

Sprint to McConnell’s office!

How did you find Susan Collins in that elevator?

Reporters formed a gauntlet down a corridor leading between the Senate chamber and the office suite of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., early Friday afternoon. Another scrum surfaced near the Capitol Rotunda, lest some of the GOP senators huddling in McConnell’s office tried to escape, unnoticed, out a back entrance. Finally, a few reporters played “free safety.” They positioned themselves all the way over by the entrance of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. This was a safety valve move, as senators who really want to elude the press can sometimes sneak from the Senate side of the Capitol through the speaker’s office and escape the scribes through the House.

Everyone was focused on the future of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh Friday. What led to the deal that Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., engineered with McConnell to delay a floor vote on the nomination for a week? What did Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, think? Had anyone seen Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska?

At another time, in another place, the media phalanx outside McConnell’s office may have unfolded for another reason. After all, it was late September. The government’s fiscal year starts on October 1. Most drama on Capitol Hill on a Friday afternoon at this time of year undoubtedly would surround whether or not there would be a government shutdown.

But something wasn’t right this September. Or, perhaps it was right. The government would be funded. And no one in Washington cared much about government money. All eyes were trained on the Kavanaugh saga. And while reporters loped through hallways at the Capitol and angry protesters confronted Flake in an elevator, President Trump quietly signed H.R. 6157, a piece of legislation to fund the government.

“Today, I signed into law important legislation to rebuild our military, protect our communities and deliver a better future for All Americans,” the president said in a statement.

Few noticed.

Shutdown averted.

There were no countdown clocks. No shuttling back and forth between the White House and the Capitol by Ryan and McConnell. No scramble by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., to round up votes. No declarations of from the House Freedom Caucus opposing the legislation.

It was as though funding the government was an afterthought.

Frankly, it’s been years since Congress and administrations of both parties have navigated a September bereft of theatrics involving a government shutdown. 

Trump signed into law what is known on Capitol Hill as a “mini-bus” appropriations bill.

In March, the president reluctantly signed an “omnibus” spending bill which mixed together all 12 of the annual spending bills into a solitary, gargantuan package. President Trump briefly threatened to veto the plan, despite advocating for the package. But, he warned Congressional leaders he wouldn’t sign another omnibus again.

So, House and Senate leaders crafted a number of “mini-buses” to fund the government for Fiscal Year 2019 and avoid a shutdown on October 1.

Leading the appropriations queue was “mini-bus 1.” That plan combined three of the spending packages into one measure. It addressed spending for military construction projects and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Energy & Water programs and the legislative branch. Then, the House and Senate synced up on an additional mini-bus which blended money for the Pentagon as well as the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. Those two mini-buses would account for five of the 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019. That leaves seven incomplete. So, to avoid a shutdown, Congressional leaders latched an interim spending plan, known as a “CR” or “Continuing Resolution” to the mini-bus. The CR would renew all money for the seven remaining spending bills on a temporary basis through December 7.

Both chambers of Congress overwhelmingly approved both bills and with little fanfare.

It’s remarkable there wasn’t a big standoff over government funding this fall – particularly after President Trump continually rattled shutdown sabers over the lack of additional money for his border wall. Tucked into the mini-buses was $1.6 billion in wall funding. But the president is far from scoring the mother lode of cash to pay for the wall. In addition, the House and Senate have yet to tackle the spending measure for the Department of Homeland Security. That won’t happen until after the election. Both McConnell and Ryan repeatedly said they thought their agreement with Mr. Trump to avoid a shutdown would stick. They were right, even if the president continued to excoriate Congress for not funding his border wall.

By signing the latest mini-bus measure, President Trump effectively punted the fight over the wall until after the midterm elections. That’s much to the chagrin of conservatives and the House Freedom Caucus. But, senior Republicans knew that a government shutdown would be disastrous for their party right before the midterm elections. Still, some conservatives argued that a shutdown just before the midterms may be good politics. A standoff could energize the Republican base and capitalize on a key campaign promise of the president.

But, there’s no shutdown.

“The president would have no one to blame but himself if he shuts down the government,” said one senior Congressional Republican source.

Multiple sources noted that Congressional GOP leaders were smart to fill the two mini-bus bills with the president’s priorities. The first mini-bus paid for programs for veterans. The second mini-bus funded the military and included a troop pay raise. In other words, Republicans on Capitol Hill made it hard for President Trump to veto either mini-bus.

So will Trump get full funding for the border wall in December? Or will there be a shutdown?

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on “Fox News Sunday.” “But, the president is committed to making sure we build the wall, getting the funding for it. And if I know anything about Donald Trump, he ultimately will get what he’s fighting for and that’ll be the wall.”

In his statement about signing mini-bus two, President Trump predictably pilloried the Democrats.

“The radical Democrats refuse to support border security and want drugs and crime to pour into our country,” said the president.

Republicans will still be in charge of Congress on December 7. But leverage for the wall diminished since the fight was punted until after the midterms.

Something wasn’t right this September. There’s plenty of turmoil on Capitol Hill. But not over a government shutdown.

That tumult could unfold in December.

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