House Republicans pushed the federal government Thursday to the brink of a shutdown over money for President Trump’s promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, in a final reprise of the chaos that came to define their eight-year reign in the majority.
Early Thursday, Republicans had appeared ready to approve a Senate-passed bill that would have funded the government through Feb. 8 without the border wall, a bill that would have marked a stunning defeat for Trump on his top campaign issue.
Within hours, however, conservative House Republicans, backed by Trump, had rallied the rank and file to rise up and fight for the border wall, albeit with no clear path toward victory.
The rebellion left uncertain the fate of a quarter of the government and paychecks for hundreds of thousands of federal workers days before Christmas.
“We’re going out with a bang,” said retiring Rep.Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), with a fist pump into the air. “With the chaos and the uncertainty and the drama that I have come to know and expect out of Congress. To expect otherwise is just not rational. Just like to expect anything other than unpredictability from President Trump is foolish.”
Late Thursday, the House voted for a bill that would fund the government for seven weeks and provide $5 billion for the border wall, a measure that stands no chance of getting through the Senate.
The struggle to keep the government funded — one of Congress’ most basic responsibilities — provided a fitting cap to the period of GOP House control that began after the 2010 election.
Regardless of who was in the White House — Barack Obama or Donald Trump — and who was speaker — Paul D. Ryan or John A. Boehner — the eight years of Republican majorities have been defined by unpredictability and, on major, controversial legislation, a sense of mayhem. It sometimes led to victory, but often resulted in votes pulled from the floor at the last minute, shocking defeats and government shutdowns.
Frequently, Republicans played on the razor’s edge of a deadline, such as the one looming Friday at midnight.
Most often, the conservative House Freedom Caucus flexed its muscle to pull the chamber to the right. The bloc of two-dozen-plus members acted together with remarkable discipline, often unwilling to go along with the plans of the House leadership, Obama or a GOP-controlled Senate.
In the case of the latest spending bill, Republicans were driven by promises they made to their voters and to the president: They told their voters they backed Trump on the wall, and they told the president they would make the push to fund it after the midterm election.
This week’s vote was also the last piece of major legislation to get through Congress before Republicans hand control of the House to Democrats in January — and therefore, the last opportunity to get the wall funded by Congress and U.S. taxpayers.
Trump has repeatedly promised that Mexico will pay for the wall.
“If we miss this opportunity, to think somehow on Feb. 8 we’ll be in a better position with more leverage is naive at best. Speaker Pelosi is not going to support this, and we’re going to have less Republican votes,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), adding that “this is one of those unfinished things that we need to do.”
Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Thursday morning largely united on fighting for the border wall.
“I’ve not seen it that united,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who leads the Freedom Caucus. “I had a few members come up to me and say they had never agreed with me ever.”
The problem for Republicans, as has repeatedly been the case since they took the majority, is that while the conservatives have enough power to prevent the House from acting, they don’t have the votes to pass their own proposals. The result has often been stalemate, which now looms as a possibility with yet another shutdown.
Adding to the uncertainly in the House was the absence of many defeated or retiring members, a bipartisan problem that complicated both sides’ vote counts. Of the 435 members, 31 didn’t show up for Thursday evening’s vote — 11 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
Trump has deepened the sense of chaos by often switching his positions with little or no warning.
The president last week said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over the wall. Then the White House backed off that position, saying that other agencies would fund the wall. That reassurance led the Senate to vote unanimously to approve a spending bill without money for the wall.
On Thursday, however, after criticism from conservative media and members of Congress, Trump said he would not sign the Senate bill.
“I’ve made my position very clear: Any measure that funds the government must include border security,” Trump said as he signed an unrelated farm bill at the White House. He called protecting and defending the country a “sacred obligation,” adding, “We have no choice.”
Several House Republicans on Thursday suggested that they wanted to force a vote on the border wall to prove to constituents that they tried. The implication was that, following the vote, they might ultimately approve a bill without the wall money.
“We want to vote for border security. I just went through an election where this was a heavily litigated issue,” said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.). “The voters in my district came down on the side of wanting border security. And they expect us to do the job.”
Even some of the Republicans who lost their seats in the Democratic midterm wave said they needed to fight for the wall.
“Whether we were going to be in the majority or not, we should still do the right thing, I think,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). “Why wouldn’t we want to protect our borders? Why wouldn’t we want to do these things?”
Sessions was one of the few defeated lawmakers who was in Washington for votes this week.
While many House Republicans said that they agreed with Trump’s push for a border wall, they acknowledged that it increased the prospects of a shutdown — and meant staying in Washington for several more days as Christmas approached.
“There’s lots of options,” Hudson said. “Not many of them involve me being home for Christmas, but I think the president needs to make the case directly to the American people why securing the southern border is so important and so urgent. I think if he does, that the American people will support us.”
Democrats, meanwhile, couldn’t be more excited to see the eight-year Republican reign in the House end in mayhem.
“Republicans are in a state of disarray,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a year-end news conference.
And some Republicans who are leaving the House said they would miss the frenzy.
“This whole fiasco is so stupid and unproductive, and yet a part of me will miss it all,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) said in a Twitter message. “The good and the otherwise. There’s just no substitute for having had the opportunity to put on a jersey and have a voting card.”
Not everyone had so cheery a view. Defeated Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) was the only California Republican to vote no on Thursday evening’s bill. The chaos is “making leaving a lot easier,” Valadao said. “It’s just ... not a fun time.”
Times staff writers Sarah D. Wire, Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman contributed to this report.