By Mike DeBonis, Ed O’Keefe and Elise Viebeck / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans tried to make sense Thursday of President Donald Trump’s early-morning tweets on immigration and children’s health, as the GOP struggled to muster the votes for a short-term spending bill and avert a government shutdown at midnight Friday.
With less than 48 hours before a possible shutdown, Trump on Twitter seemed to directly contradict the legislative strategy of congressional Republicans by calling for the separation of a long-term extension of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) from a short-term spending bill to keep the government open through mid-February. While some Republicans suggested that the president was endorsing the GOP’s approach, albeit sloppily, others found the tweets inexplicable and unhelpful ahead of the November midterm elections.
CHIP should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2018
“We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., said as he walked into the Capitol.
“This has turned into an s-show for no good reason, and the only way out of this thing is to grow up a little bit — and I think that’s going to happen,” he said.
The back-and-forth was reminiscent of the chaos that erupted last week after Trump tweeted criticism of an intelligence bill that his administration had endorsed the day before.
Some Republican aides said Trump was trying to be helpful with his tweet.
“I think people are misreading this,” tweeted Brett Horton, chief of staff to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. “The president wants a long-term reauthorization [solution] for CHIP, and this CR does exactly that.”
Republicans’ goal is to force Democrats into the uncomfortable position of choosing between funding CHIP and their effort to win legal protections for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.
The GOP was prepared to target Democrats for opposing the short-term spending with the six-year extension of the children’s health program. The election-year attack would involve letters from governors and statistics from individual states, according to a senior aide.
“It’s just confusing. I don’t know what he means. I don’t know why he’s doing that,” this person said about Trump’s tweets.
House Republicans hoped to hold a vote as soon as Thursday on the short-term spending bill with the health insurance program attached. Changing the bill could delay its consideration.
The bill would keep the government open through Feb. 16 while extending CHIP and rolling back several taxes in the Affordable Care Act.
In several tweets before 9 a.m., Trump blamed Democrats for a possible shutdown.
“CHIP should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!” Trump tweeted.
“A government shutdown will be devastating to our military … something the Dems care very little about!” he wrote.
If the government closes, it will be the first time under unified party control of Congress and the White House. The White House on Wednesday had endorsed the short-term funding bill, but by Thursday, support had eroded further in the Senate as Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Angus King, I-Maine, indicated that they would oppose it.
Early Thursday, some Republicans signaled that their patience with the president was wearing thin.
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said that the level of support in the House for the short-term bill is unclear and that extending CHIP would help avoid a shutdown.
“A lot of House Republicans want a six-year extension. It’s important to us,” he said. “That’s just another one of those inexplicable tweets that’s not very helpful.”
Another Republican, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, said he was uncertain how he would vote on the bill.
“It seems to be a work in progress. No one has completely pinned down what’s coming next,” he said.
Told of Trump’s tweets, Sanford said: “It’s fluid, topsy-turvy, whichever you prefer.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., did not comment on Trump’s tweets or a possible shutdown at an early Thursday appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an appeal to defense hawks, he called for a boost in Pentagon spending and criticized Democrats for using the military “as a bargaining chip for completely unrelated items.”
“The defense budget is being held hostage for DACA,” he said, referring to the program for young undocumented immigrants that Trump is ending in March. “It’s completely unrelated, and those are the partisan games that are being played right now.”
The last shutdown occurred in 2013 and lasted 16 days as Republicans tried unsuccessfully to force changes to the Affordable Care Act.
Shuttered national parks and monuments have become a symbol of shutdowns past, and the Trump administration is drawing up plans to keep them open despite the closure as a means to blunt public anger.
The prospects for passage of the spending bill in the Senate were dicey. Several Democrats who had approved earlier short-term spending extensions announced Wednesday that they would be voting “no” this time around. They were under intense pressure from activists to hold firm on demands for a solution for the young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” who face losing protections against deportation that were yanked by the Trump administration.
“President Trump and the Republicans have a choice: They can either come to the table and negotiate in good faith on a responsible funding agreement and protection for dreamers – or they can cause a government shutdown,” said Sen. Tom Udall, N.M., one of those Democrats.
In the House, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., left an evening meeting with Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., saying that he had not been won over and that the short-term spending bill expected to come to the floor on Thursday remained short of votes.
“We’re making good progress, yet still at this point if the vote were to happen today there’s not the votes to fund it with Republican-only votes,” Meadows said. His group is pushing for greater defense spending, among other things.
The defections left the outlook uncertain, leaving open the possibility that the government will shut down Friday at midnight. GOP leaders in both chambers insisted that such an outcome would be avoided, and members of the House vote-counting team expressed guarded optimism that they would be able to round up the necessary support in time for Thursday’s vote.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said there is a “good chance” that the bill will pass in the upper chamber. “We’ll be taking that up as soon as it comes over from the House,” he said.