WASHINGTON — Democrats pilloried Republicans for irresponsibly shutting down the government when Barack Obama was president, but as a minority party struggling to show resistance in the era of President Trump, they are now ready to let the lights of government go dark.
A group of prominent Senate Democrats on Monday raised the specter of a shutdown over the funding of President Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico. They also signaled a series of protracted budget battles in Congress over a larger force of immigration officers, what they call a deportation force, and funding for Planned Parenthood. They warned that these would also be “poison pills” that could kill any potential deals to keep the gears of government running normally this year.
In a letter to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, Senator Chuck Schumer and four other Democratic leaders made clear how far they were prepared to go: “We believe it would be inappropriate to insist on the inclusion of such funding in a must-pass appropriations bill that is needed for the Republican majority in control of the Congress to avert a government shutdown so early in President Trump’s administration.”
Democrats have said little up to now about the possibility of employing the brinkmanship that Republicans used in the fights over the budget and the debt ceiling during the Obama administration. But with Mr. Trump expected to formally outline his 2018 budget priorities for the first time on Thursday and an April 28 deadline looming to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year, the stakes of failing to reach an agreement are ratcheting up higher.
“Most government shutdowns occur not because of specific funding issues but because of emotions around them,” said Stan Collender, who has worked for Democrats on the House and Senate budget committees. A border wall, he said, “is one of the issues that has the potential for creating those kinds of emotions.”
After promising repeatedly during the presidential campaign that Mexico would pay for the construction of a border wall, Mr. Trump has remained vague since taking office about the actual mechanics of funding it through the budget. A border wall could cost $25 billion to construct, some experts say.
Mr. Trump still insists that Mexico will pay for it eventually, but Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, suggested in an interview last week that he would make a supplemental request to get construction started in 2017 and ask for more funding in 2018 and 2019. Despite Mr. Trump’s other promises to make the wall big and beautiful, the details remained rough.
“It just depends on the kind of wall that you want to build, and I don’t think we’ve settled yet on the actual construction,” Mr. Mulvaney said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “So it’s a complicated program. I don’t know what the answer is on the cost, but we will have one shortly.” Mr. Mulvaney orchestrated a government shutdown in 2013 as a Republican member of Congress.
Last month, the Trump administration indicated that it would increase military spending by $54 billion while cutting nonmilitary spending by the same amount. The plan deeply slashes money for the State Department, foreign aid, the Internal Revenue Service and the National Endowment for the Arts.
A draft budget request that surfaced last week also showed that the Trump administration was considering making cuts to the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Much of those funds would go toward paying for the wall.
Still, none of this will happen without the assistance of some Democrats.
Republicans, who have 52 seats in the Senate, will need 60 votes to pass a budget. Resistance to military spending increases from Republican fiscal hawks in the House could mean that some Democrats will be needed there, too. And Democrats have been steadfast in their insistence that they will not lift the caps on military spending imposed by the Budget Control Act sequester unless spending on domestic programs is allowed to increase by the same amount.
Democrats flirted with a government shutdown over health benefits to retired miners last year before backing down at the last minute.
Members of the party point out that their approach is different from the one taken by Republicans during the Obama years because they are merely seeking a clean budget bill, not using the threat of a shutdown to extract policy concessions from the party in power.
Mr. Schumer said that he would not rule out approving funding for a wall in 2018, but that Mr. Trump must first explain how he plans to use eminent domain to acquire land along the border, the effects of the construction on the Native Americans and how he plans to persuade Mexico to reimburse the United States for the costs.
In the meantime, Mr. Schumer rejected the idea that Democrats were being hypocritical for hinting at a shutdown and said it was up to Republicans to keep the government open.
“The onus for shutting down government falls on the governing party, which is them,” he said in an interview. “They will have to face down some of the ideologues in their caucus and, on things like the wall, face down the president.”