On Tuesday afternoon, ahead of a crucial vote in Congress to keep the government open past this week, President Donald Trump startled lawmakers by saying he’d “love to see a shutdown” if Democrats refused to cede ground in the debate over immigration policy.
Alarming words, yes, but there’s one issue: the talks to fund the government and avert a shutdown don’t have anything to do with immigration. And Republicans want to keep it that way.
For the fifth time since September, lawmakers are preparing to vote on a continuing resolution: a temporary budget measure that keeps the government open for short period — often a few weeks — rather than for the entire fiscal year. (This is generally seen as bad policymaking; lawmakers refer to it derisively as “kicking the can down the road.”) It’s been just fifteen days since Congress passed the last spending bill, and that one came only after a weekend-long government shutdown brought on by Senate Democrats irate at the lack of progress in reaching an immigration deal.
This time, though, immigration has no direct role in the budget debates on the Hill. The crux of the matter is spending caps: an increase in government spending limits on both military and nonmilitary funding. It’s been a thorn in the side of this polarized Congress for some time — Democrats have repeatedly called for increases in non-defense appropriations — and if a deal is reached, lawmakers could move forward in passing a more permanent budget solution.
This was apparently lost on Trump, who, at the Tuesday White House meeting on gang violence, said a shutdown was a viable options if Democrats did not acquiesce to his demands for stricter border security.
“We don’t need a government shutdown on this,” Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican, attempted to assure Trump, according to pool reports from the meeting.
“You can say what you want,” Trump responded. “We are not getting the support of the Democrats.”
The Democrats, meanwhile, were baffled. “His comments are totally divorced from reality,” one senior Democratic aide told TIME.
In remarks to reporters on Tuesday before Trump placed himself in the middle of the budget talks, leaders of both parties said they were encouraged by the progress being made.
“Senator Schumer and I had a good meeting this morning about a caps deal,” an uncharacteristically chipper Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to reach an agreement…. We’re on the way to getting an agreement, and getting it pretty soon.”
Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, said shortly thereafter that he was “very hopeful” about an imminent compromise.
“From the very beginning of the budget debate, Democrats have made our position in these negotiations very clear,” Schumer said. “We support an increase in funding for our military and an increase in funding for middle-class programs. The two are not mutually exclusive.”
On Tuesday evening, the House of Representatives prepared to vote on a stopgap resolution that would keep the government open until March 23 and increase military funding through the end of the fiscal year. The Senate would likely expand the bill to raise nonmilitary funding as well.
Of course, none of this is to say that the matter of immigration isn’t looming over Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have just one month to find a legislative replacement for the Obama-era executive program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which Trump repealed in September and protects immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The failure to make progress on the issue is what impelled Democrats in the Senate to refuse to pass a spending bill last month, leading to the temporary shutdown. They were eventually assuaged by a promise from McConnell to address the issue on the Senate floor before the March deadline, and have little desire to relive last month’s shutdown drama.
“I’ll simply repeat what I’ve said: once we’ve established that the government is going to be open, we’ll then go forward with an immigration debate,” McConnell said on Tuesday. “There’s no secret plan to push this in any direction. The Senate’s going to work its will.”
Unless, of course, Trump chooses to involve himself.