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Senators look to stop future shutdowns, but Trump says another is 'certainly' an option

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, arrive at the Senate prior to a vote on ending the partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned to work Monday anxiously awaiting their first paychecks in more than a month, the White House made clear President Donald Trump has not ruled out furloughing them again in less than three weeks if he is still unsatisfied with the progress Congress makes on border wall funding.

“I think he actually is,” acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday when asked whether Trump is willing to shut down about a quarter of the government again to get what he wants.

On Friday, Trump announced an agreement to reopen agencies that had been unfunded since Dec. 22 for three weeks while a bipartisan committee negotiates a border security package. If they do not reach an agreement that addresses his demand for $5.7 billion for border wall construction, he added, either part of the government will shut down or he will declare a national emergency.

"If we don't get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on February 15 again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency," Trump said in a Rose Garden statement Friday afternoon.

While the president was making threats, some on Capitol Hill were seeking ways to ensure neither party can ever force a government shutdown again.

“The final language in any deal that comes out three weeks from now should put strong provisions and strong penalties in place to prevent this tactic from being used by either party or any White House or Congress in the future,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on the Senate floor.

“The final package should also end government shutdowns once and for all,” agreed Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Warner has gone a step further, introducing the Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years (Stop STUPIDITY) Act, which would maintain funding for most agencies in the event of a budget impasse but defund the legislative branch and the White House.

“More than a little bit of common sense tells me that we wouldn’t be here 35 days into this shutdown if all our staffs were experiencing the same kind of shortfall and economic distress that 800,000 of our fellow federal workers experienced,” Warner said Friday.

The Stop STUPIDITY Act is one of several legislative proposals offered in recent weeks. Grassley is a co-sponsor of another, the End Government Shutdowns Act, which would create an automatic continuing resolution for any appropriations bill not completed by the Oct. 1 deadline. After 120 days, funding would be reduced by 1 percent, and then cut by an additional 1 percent every 90 days until an agreement is reached.

“We were elected to govern, not to not govern,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, another co-sponsor of the End Government Shutdowns Act, told KBOI earlier this month.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who forced a brief 9-hour shutdown last February, introduced his own Government Shutdown Prevention Act two weeks ago. It would institute an immediate 1 percent cut in funding for any agency or program not funded by the start of the fiscal year, and then another 1 percent cut every 90 days.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday she is interested in exploring legislation that would prevent future shutdowns as the scope of damage done by this one becomes clearer.

“Procedures have been weaponized,” said Richard Arenberg, a former longtime Capitol Hill senior staffer and author of “Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress.” “Almost every year we experience shutdown brinksmanship. It's a little like the ‘game of chicken’ where cars are driven directly at each other. Neither driver wants a head-on collision. But, neither want to swerve. More often than not, someone swerves to avoid the disaster, but the head-on collision can occur without either driver intending it.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated Monday the five-week shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 billion. Much of that is expected to be recovered now that federal employers are back at work, but the CBO calculated $3 billion in economic activity was permanently lost.

“I am hopeful that we have finally reached a turning point with these mindless shutdowns, but this CBO estimate serves as a stark warning to President Trump on the consequences of using American workers as a bargaining chip,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who requested the CBO report, said in a statement.

Beyond the human and economic cost, one of the strongest political arguments against shutdowns is that they typically do not work. Trump came out of the latest one with the same short-term continuing resolution he could have gotten in December.

Democrats who forced a shutdown over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last January abandoned it after three days in exchange for a vague promise of debate on immigration legislation that resolved nothing. Republicans who provoked lengthy shutdowns in 2013 and the 1995 walked away mostly empty-handed.

“Government shutdowns for any substantial period are reliably disastrous for the party which the public winds up blaming,” Arenberg said.

Some lawmakers have been banging this drum for a while, and they may be happy to see interest rising among their colleagues. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has introduced a version of the End Government Shutdowns Act in every Congress since he was elected in 2010, and this year’s bill already has more cosponsors than the previous one.

As unhappy as pretty much everyone in Washington was over the last five weeks, support for taking shutdowns off the table probably will not be unanimous. As time passes, Arenberg expects the urgency of the moment to dissipate while the threat of a shutdown retains potency in negotiations.

“Shutdown brinksmanship has been a feature of budget battles for decades in Congress now,” he said. “While actual shutdowns have worked out poorly for the party causing it, the president's party has in many instances benefitted with a negotiation advantage at the end of the year.”

There is a risk that removing the pressure created by the prospect of a shutdown will make it even harder for Congress to agree on a budget. Some lawmakers have voiced concerns about the ramifications of automatic spending cuts as well.

A bill that ends shutdowns would also be politically dicey. Although the desire to shut down shutdowns predates Trump for some Republicans, passing such legislation now would inevitably be seen as a rebuke of the president. It would also presumably require Trump’s signature.

“The disastrous results of the 35-day shutdown we have just experienced will have chilling effect on future shutdowns,” Arenberg predicted. “Whether that will affect the ego-driven decisions of President Trump, we will have to wait and see.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal Sunday, President Trump said he sees less than a 50-50 chance Congress makes a deal by Feb. 15 and he doubts he would accept less than $5.7 billion for the wall. If lawmakers fall short of that, he said, another shutdown is “certainly an option.”

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