When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took to the floor on Thursday, he had an extra spring in his step and a barely suppressed grin. Who could blame him?
As he said, “From what we saw in the Oval Office and news reports about his reaction after our meeting, President Donald Trump is willing to throw a temper tantrum and shut down the government unless he gets his way.”
But Republicans don’t have the stomach for that, knowing that voters would see a shutdown as proof positive that Trump and his party cannot govern. That gives Schumer all the incentive in the world to hold firm.
“I want to be crystal clear: There will not be additional appropriations to pay for the border wall. It’s done,” he said. “The president repeatedly promised that Mexico would pay for his unnecessary and ineffective border wall, in his words: ’100 percent.'”
Schumer then called Trump's bluff. "Well, Mr. President: If you say Mexico is going to pay for the wall through NAFTA, which it certainly won't, then I guess we don't have to! Let's fund the government," he said.
Following Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi’s example, he declared, “The president’s position on the wall is totally contradictory, ill-informed and frankly irresponsible. It’s not a serious proposal; it’s a throwaway idea the president used in the campaign and still uses to fire up his base. A Trump temper tantrum and shutdown threat isn’t going to change any minds here in Congress.”
Much focus has been on the new Democratic House's oversight and subpoena powers. However, the power to set the agenda and to pass one bill after another (under Pelosi's iron control) is equally if not more significant. As Schumer said, "When Democrats take control of the House in January, Democrats will pass one of our two options to fund the government, and then Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans will be left holding the bag for a Trump shutdown if they don't pass our bill now."
The same will be true on a bill to bolster the Affordable Care Act, a revision of the Voting Rights Act, new ethics rules, and legislation on infrastructure and immigration. (On the latter, Democrats might consider passing the same Gang of Eight bill that passed the Senate overwhelmingly with the votes of many Republican senators who still serve.) Provided Pelosi can control her left flank and not endanger moderate members, an assembly line of completed legislation by the House would do three things.
First, it would put many GOP senators, especially those from swing states (Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado) on the ballot in 2020, in a tough spot. If they decline to act on House-passed bills, their Democratic challengers will ask, not unreasonably, "Why isn't the Senate taking up some of these items?" A do-nothing Senate whose only action is circling the wagons around a floundering president puts the GOP's Senate majority at risk in 2020.
Second, House legislation could provide an agenda for 2020 that incumbent Democrats and a Democratic presidential nominee can run on (or modify as need be). Part of what got Democrats the House majority was the promise they would end dysfunction and bickering and start solving problems. Now is their chance to show what they are for, not simply that they are against the president.
Third, maybe something actually could get done. As we saw this week, Trump is more vulnerable than he has ever been. Prosecutors are circling him like sharks spotting wounded prey, Republicans are beginning to buck him, and his White House is in disarray (still). Maybe - given his lack of ideological principles — he’d be amenable to a good deal of what Democrats propose. After all, not so long ago he was a Democrat.
If Trump is going to repeat his temper-tantrum performance in the Oval Office — which amounts to threatening to hold his breath until he passes out — Republicans will remain on defense for a good deal of 2019. It’s a bit of political karma given their complete subservience to Trump.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.