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House GOP leaders fear support eroding for Trump’s shutdown fight

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (left) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise and other senior Republicans believe that “a significant bloc” of House Republicans could vote with Democrats on funding measures. | Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Several dozen House Republicans may cross the aisle this week to vote for Democratic bills to reopen shuttered parts of the federal government, spurring the White House into a dramatic effort to stem potential GOP defections.

White House officials and Republican congressional leaders worry that GOP support for the shutdown is eroding, weakening President Donald Trump’s hand as he seeks billions of dollars for a border wall that Democrats have vowed to oppose, according to GOP lawmakers and aides.

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Hoping to sway skeptics in his party and the broader public, Trump will make an Oval Office address Tuesday night to discuss what he called the “Humanitarian and National Security Crisis on our Southern Border,” he announced on Twitter. That will be followed by a Trump trip to the border region on Thursday.

Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will address House Republicans on Tuesday evening. The House on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on a Democratic bill designed to fund the IRS and several other agencies, the first of four bills Democrats hope to use to peel off Trump’s GOP support in the House.

Without more money, the IRS could have a problem processing tax refunds. Russ Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, reversed course on Monday and said refunds will be paid out, another move by the White House to ameliorate the impact of the shutdown.

The Democratic funding measure is one of several narrow measures that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and party leaders will push forward this week. The bills are designed to put pressure on GOP lawmakers to break with Trump and support re-opening the nine departments hit by the 17-day shutdown. More than 800,000 federal workers are currently not getting paid — roughly 350,000 remain on the job without pay — with their first missed paycheck coming later this week.

Despite the White House P.R. blitz, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and other senior Republicans believe that “a significant bloc” of House Republicans could vote with Democrats on the funding measures, according to GOP lawmakers and aides.

A senior House GOP aide said McCarthy and his top lieutenants believe 15 to 25 Republicans will vote with Democrats this week, possibly even more.

“We have a lot of members who are gonna want to vote for these things,” said the GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Publicly, we will never tell them to do it. Privately, we will tell them to do what they have to do.”

However, GOP leaders say they can keep that number below 55, a key threshold for political purposes. That many Republican defections, coupled with all House Democrats, would reach 290 “yes” votes, a veto-proof majority. While House Democrats can’t overcome Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) refusal to bring up their bills, it would signal the House can override a Trump veto, a major blow to the president and his allies.

“The biggest thing we can do to back the president up is to keep it below veto proof,” the GOP aide added. “That’s a win for us.”

U.S. Treasury Department

“I think the more that you have people not getting paid, the more the stories coming out about the hardships this shutdown is creating, not just for federal workers but those who rely on federal agencies to get their work done, people are shaking their heads,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), one of seven House Republicans who voted with Democrats last week to reopen the government. “I think it’s a pretty unsustainable position, and I felt that early on.”

In forcing these votes, Pelosi and Democratic leaders have copied a GOP tactic from the 2013 shutdown, when a battle over Obamacare led to a 16-day government shutdown.

At the time, House GOP leaders made Democrats take dozens of votes to fund national parks, low-income nutrition assistance program, Head Start and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others.

The first House vote, which will take place Wednesday, will dare GOP lawmakers to vote against funding for a slew of financial agencies including the IRS. A “no” vote — Democrats argued before Monday’s comments from OMB — is a vote to delay tax refunds to U.S. taxpayers.

The same funding package includes a 1.9 percent pay raise for the nation’s two million civilian federal workers, a large chunk of whom have been working without pay since the shutdown began.

Democrats will also force Republicans to vote separately on bills that include funding for food stamps and some federal mortgage programs.

Back in 2013, roughly two dozen Democrats sided with the GOP on nearly every spending bill. A bill to fund veterans’ benefits won support from 35 Democrats.

White House officials and GOP leaders privately say a similar number of Republicans will vote for Democratic bills this week, a blow to Trump but not a fatal one.

Donald Trump

“Yes, there is some concern. Look at what happened in 2013. There were a ton of defections,” a White House official said. “We’re trying to make sure House Republicans know the facts. I think it’s less a concern about votes, and more than we want to make sure they know the facts.”

Last week, only seven House Republicans voted for Pelosi’s plan to reopen the government without an extra dime for Trump’s border barrier. Most of the “yes” vote were moderate Republicans from swing districts, as well as Walden, a GOP leadership ally who said he decided to support the funding bills to stop the pain hitting national parks in his district.

Pence personally called some Republicans to persuade them to vote against the Democratic bill, GOP leadership aides said. And Republican lawmakers who supported the proposal heard complaints from party leaders.

“We’ve been in touch with those members and others,” Pence told reporters Monday when asked about certain Republicans expressing concern with the shutdown. “I’ll be on Capitol Hill tomorrow before the president’s national address briefing House members with the [Homeland Security] secretary. We’re going to be on Capitol Hill meeting with the Senate on Wednesday.”

“Republican leadership is leaning on folks. They were pretty pissed at the seven Republicans who voted for the package last week,” said an aide to a Republican who voted in favor of the Democratic proposal.

House Republicans are also searching for a strategy to rebut the Democrats’ plan. GOP leaders are eyeing procedural tactics to force Democrats to take tough votes as well. One idea is to force Democrats to take a vote against increasing funding for Election Assistance Grants, according to a House GOP aide familiar with the plans.

House Republican Conference Vice Chair Mark Walker (N.C.) said the GOP will “weather the storm” as Democrats pile on pressure this week to get Republicans to break with Trump over the shutdown.

“You’re always going to have defections when it comes to certain tough issues,” Walker said of the Democrats’ funding tactics, but added the “overwhelming majority” of House Republicans will stick together.

“People are going to start hurting really badly,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said of looming mortgage payments for furloughed employees. “But this is nothing, this is fake, which is unfortunate… It’s another [Democratic] messaging attempt. It’s all for naught.”

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