That’s because, in part, President Donald Trump’s top aides sent mixed signals over the past few days about how far he would go to secure funding for his border wall, a potential poison pill for the spending fight.
Hours after Trump touted the importance of building a wall, a White House official signaled later Monday that the President won’t insist on that funding in a spending bill to keep the government running past Friday. The official said that even some funding for “border security” could satisfy the President at this point, with the expectation that wall funding would come in future spending bill negotiations.
“Politics is the art of compromise,” the official said.
The new flexibility comes after White House officials sounded as if they were insisting on wall funding as part of any proposal to keep the government from shutting down.
Trump himself muddied the waters in recent days by adding a return to health care reform to the legislative docket, and promised a “big announcement” on tax reform during the week leading up to the crucial budget deadline and, coincidentally, the 100-day marker of his presidency.
That’s in addition to White House officials sending mixed messages about what the funding bill will need to earn Trump’s signature.
The result is an uncertain strategy that is reflective of the political reality a White House with few legislative accomplishments faces as it nears the end of the first 100-day grading period to both make good on campaign promises and avoid a politically damaging government shutdown.
Trump again on Monday hammered its importance on Twitter, but stopped short of threatening a veto: “The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)! If ….the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be! #BuildTheWall.”
On Sunday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Trump expects his “priorities” — military and border security spending increases — to be included in the budget bill, but focused on the White House’s flexibility in arriving at a deal to keep the government open.
“As long as the President’s priorities are adequately reflected in the (continuing resolution) and it allows us to get moving with an increase in military spending and a rebuilding of our military as he promised in one of your bullet points, and there’s enough as far as flexibility for the border wall and border security, I think we’ll be OK with that,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But other top aides the same day focused instead on funding for the border wall — not just on border security overall.
“I can’t imagine the Democrats would shut down the government over an objection to building a down payment on a wall that can end the lawlessness,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on ABC’s “This Week,” suggesting Democrats — not Trump and Republicans — should catch the blame for a government shutdown over border wall funding.
“It will help us complete the promise that the President has made tot the American people. That’s what they want. The American people, they have a right to expect it,” Sessions added.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said he suspected Trump would be “insistent on the funding” for the border wall, the White House budget director Mick Mulvaney echoed Trump’s comment from a Friday interview: “We don’t know yet.”
The mixed messaging continued on health care, where Priebus and Mulvaney continued to push for a vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, days after Trump told reporters “it doesn’t matter” if a vote comes to fruition this week. A day before that, Trump said he wanted “both” health care reform and a budget bill the same week.
Privately, senior administration officials over the weekend said the pressure to rush for a vote on health care had subsided and that the White House’s priorities were realigning with those on Capitol Hill: to pass a budget bill and keep the government open.
The White House also scrambled to temper expectations over the weekend after Trump on Friday promised a “big announcement” on tax reform this week, which aides said would simply outline the administration’s “broad principles and priorities” — broad strokes Trump already laid out during his campaign.
Both the health care push and tax reform announcement pose a risk to the White House’s efforts to work with Congress to pass a budget bill by the end of the week by fracturing the attention of members on Capitol Hill and adding unknown variables to an already messy equation.
As the West Wing embarks on the final sprint to the 100-day marker of Trump’s presidency, top aides were thrown into the familiar pattern of rushing to match action to the President’s words while publicly avoiding words that could box in a President who prides himself on remaining “flexible.”
But while negotiations over an Obamacare replacement have played out in public, Trump and his aides have been more cautious in drawing clear lines on its demands for a budget bill that could pass muster.
Pressed repeatedly on Monday about whether Trump would sign off on a budget that leaves out funding for the border wall, White House press secretary Sean Spicer demurred.
“I don’t want to get ahead of those negotiations. They are ongoing,” Spicer said.