Even the most optimistic members of Congress are admitting — publicly and privately — that they are out of good ideas (or even mediocre ideas) on how to bring this shutdown to a close. Which got me to thinking about what it would take to break the logjam, to end this game of chicken and to put the 800,000 federal workers either furloughed or working without pay back to work. Here are six possible scenarios:
To date, Republican moderates in the Senate like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins haven’t done much to put pressure on McConnell or the White House to budge off of their current position. Murkowski, in particular, has decried the shutdown and Congress’ inability to to anything about it, but she hasn’t threatened to side with Democrats or something of that sort to fundamentally change the voting calculus. (Even if Murkowski did vote with Democrats, it wouldn’t likely matter. McConnell controls what measures get votes on the Senate floor. And you need 60 votes to end debate on any piece of legislation and move to a final vote.) McConnell is a political creature and might react if some of his potentially vulnerable members up in 2020 — like Collins or Colorado’s Cory Gardner — came to him and said the extended shutdown was really damaging their reelection prospects. That doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
2) Massive lines at major airports around the country
We’ve seen a few outrageous lines — most notably at LAX — over the past 10 days, as well as sporadic closures of terminals in Miami and Baltimore due to an increased number of TSA agents who are not reporting to work during the shutdown. (More recent reports about LAX suggest wait times are no worse than normal.) If lines at airports in major hub cities like Atlanta and Chicago began to swell or there were problems at airports like Washington Reagan or LaGuardia and JFK in New York — where lots of politicians and media types live and work — that could change the equation.
3) A security breach
This is the worst-case scenario for everyone involved. If TSA staffing, Secret Service protection and travel around high-profile events like the Super Bowl continue to be affected by the shutdown, there is at least the possibility that the shortfall could lead to someone breaching security and posing a potential threat. Such a catastrophic situation would likely lead to a) an immediate re-opening of the government and b) a reckoning with how our political polarization has dangerous real-world consequences.
4) Freshmen Democrats panic
There are 23 freshmen Democrats who represent House seats that Donald Trump won in the 2016 election. While Pelosi has held them in total lockstep since the start of the shutdown, the longer it goes the more they will start to worry about how it will affect their reelection chances. Although national polling shows that a majority of the country both opposes the wall and blames Trump and Republicans for the shutdown, the story isn’t as clear cut in some of these districts that have shown a willingness to cast a vote for Trump. All that said, Pelosi – over the past decade — has demonstrated that she enjoys an iron grip over her caucus. It’s hard to see that changing anytime soon.
5) National emergency declaration
If Trump decided to declare the situation at the border a national emergency, the government would re-open in a matter of days. Trump would take the $5 billion for the wall construction from military funding already allocated by Congress — thus removing the hurdle that is currently keeping the government closed. But the thing is that it feels as though that ship has sailed. Earlier this month, Trump seemed to be getting ready to make an emergency declaration — and was even urged to do so by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of his most vocal allies. But he backed away from it. During a visit to the border in McAllen, Texas, Trump said that the “easy solution is for me to call a national emergency, … but I’m not going to do it so fast.” If Trump hasn’t taken the legally questionable step yet — and he’s addressed the nation twice since the start of the year — why would he do it now?
6) Trump gives up
The President seems very dug in on this — especially after grudgingly agreeing two previous times during his tenure to keep the government open despite not getting the money for the wall that he wanted. But this is Trump we are talking about, a man who has built an entire life on being very, very unpredictable. There’s no doubt that Trump sees the polling that suggests he is “losing” this shutdown — and that he hates losing. The question is how low his numbers would have to go before Trump decided to cut bait and walk away from the shutdown. Arguing against a cave is the fact that the shutdown fight has turned deeply personal, with Pelosi and Trump trading barbs via Twitter and public statements. Trump is very thin-skinned and, therefore, the level of personal animosity between him and Pelosi could keep him from giving in.