Is Bondi White House-bound? Speculation follows meeting with Trump and NFL greats

Pam Bondi is pictured. | AP Photo

“I am working on some special projects with the White House,” Bondi told POLITICO Florida without elaborating. | AP Photo

In a sign she might be bound for the White House, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi made a special Monday trip to meet with President Donald Trump and two Cabinet secretaries to talk about children’s issues with fellow Floridians and former football greats Tony Dungy and Derrick Brooks in tow.

Bondi’s visit, which included meetings with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, gave a small indication that she’s testing the waters for an as-yet-unnamed job in Trump’s White House before her term expires in 2019.

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Saying she’s happy with her work in Florida, however, Bondi would not discuss her next move — despite months of speculation about whether or when she would leave.

“I am working on some special projects with the White House,” Bondi told POLITICO Florida without elaborating.

As part of that new project, Bondi brought Dungy (a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers football coach who has become a kids-rights crusader), Brooks (a former Florida State University and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Hall of Fame linebacker who co-founded a Florida charter school) and All Pro Dads activist Mark Merrill “to talk about children’s issues” with DeVos and Carson, who also live in Florida. In between meetings, they dropped by the White House and snapped a picture with President Trump.

So has Bondi shared with the White House what she wants to do next? Perhaps. But those who know her well aren’t sure what she wants to do.

“I don’t ask her because I don’t want to be the one to be blamed for leaking it,” said one Republican familiar with the way Bondi thinks. “If she takes a job in DC, I hope she knows what she’s getting into.”

Though Brooks runs a charter school, and Bondi and DeVos support school choice programs, Bondi said they didn’t discuss that topic.

“Coach Dungy and Derrick Brooks are incredible role models for children and make such a difference for Florida’s children,” Bondi said. “They have shared these positive experiences with the White House.”

Still, many expect the Trump administration could or should push a tax-credit school-choice program — first tested in Florida — if Congress decides to redo the tax code. Sen. Marco Rubio has a bill ready to do just that. Florida school-choice activist John Kirtley, a driving force behind Florida’s voucher and tax-credit programs, said the time to get Congress to act is now.

“A tax reform bill could be a good vehicle, as it wouldn’t take any funds from existing educational programs,” Kirtley said. “I hope that the administration and Congress looks to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program as a model for something at the Federal level.”

What George W. Bush Can Teach Trump About the Press

A White House under siege. A president considered underqualified for the job, distrusted by global elites. An administration that has branded a harshly critical media as unpatriotic and rooting for America to fail. This was the George W. Bush administration in its final years, when its long, hard slog against the U.S. press reached its peak. I was working as a White House speechwriter then, part of the team that was frustrated and angered by relentless negative coverage—so much so that some of us branded the press as the enemy, and shut them out completely.

This was a mistake.

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Today, I’m watching the Trump administration go down that same road—dismissing press criticism, calling the media the “enemy of the American people,” and taking solace in a glowing counter-narrative of their own making. Trust me, I understand the impulse. But I’ve also seen where this road leads. And while the ride seems enjoyable, the car still ends up in the ditch.

Let’s start with what should be an obvious observation. Trump is justified in having a beef— insert Trump steak joke here—with the media. Throughout the 2016 campaign, our nation’s most esteemed and seasoned reporters and pundits, intentionally or unintentionally, did mislead the American people time and time again. The reason Trump’s constant “rehash” of his victory seems to bug so many reporters is the primary reason Trump does it: because his election triumph made them look foolish, close-minded, arrogant and wrong.

I spent a few hours over the last week scanning YouTube to watch Election Night coverage on various news networks. Most striking were the similarities—regardless of the channel. For the first two hours or so, informed by the same wretched exit polls, our nation’s top newscasters and analysts all but forecast a Clinton victory. As the evening went on, and actual returns in places like Virginia and Florida were not living up to expectations, the tide turned toward the possibility of a Trump shocker. (A prospect that no one seemed to delight in.) Every single newscast expressed the same confident assertions as inviolable truths: Trump had to win Florida (in fact, he would have won without it); Georgia was on a knife’s edge (Trump won by 5 points, far better than Clinton did in, say, Minnesota); Pennsylvania would go Democrat (it didn’t); a “surge” of Hispanics and African Americans was bad news for Trump (he likely did better with both groups than Mitt Romney); the blue wall foreclosed realistic Trump paths to victory (he had more paths than Clinton did all night). No panelist or reporter I saw ever corrected these falsely uttered “facts,” of course. To Trump supporters, in light of a news media righteously indignant over every Trumpian exaggeration or misstatement, this was, and remains, understandably galling.

Since his election, the TrumpWorld grievances have mounted: the mistake in reporting that Trump quickly removed Martin Luther King Jr.’s bust from the Oval Office, the AP “factchecking” Trump’s opinion—an opinion that millions of Americans shared, by the way—that he inherited “a mess” from Obama. (One doubts any major media outlet factchecked Obama’s similar gripes against George W. Bush.) The prosecutorial zeal on any meetings anyone ever connected to Trump may have had with anyone linked to anything to do with Russia. And so on.

Which bring us to the second point—the press might not be the president’s friend, but he should not brand them as the enemy. Most reporters almost certainly voted against him; their tweets attacking everything he says and does can be grating—as even media watchdogs have contended. But summarily dismissing media criticism will backfire. Just look at what happened to Bush.

With the Iraq War being branded a “quagmire,” Russia on the march in Georgia, and the global economy on the verge of total collapse, Bush had enormous problems with which to grapple. And while many reporters are now, as is their habit, lauding him with praise when he no longer is in office, most were vicious toward him when he was in power. He was branded a racist over the perceived lack of response for Hurricane Katrina; he and his aides were called war criminals over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib; he was being blamed for the housing crisis that contributed to the 2007-2008 economic collapse; he was criticized for his “feeble” response to Russia and mocked for having once claimed to have seen Vladimir Putin’s soul.

Sentiments inside the Bush administration toward the media hardened. Under fire from all directions on nearly every issue, the attitude was both human and understandable: These guys are biased against us; there’s no point in engaging them. Certain networks no longer appeared on many White House office TV screens. Administration officials tended to veer toward more friendly, or at least sympathetic, networks and outlets. That was not in and of itself a terrible strategy—especially in the current era in which there are far more alternatives than ever.

But, in the end, this solution only added to the problem. Because even if the Bush administration no longer cared what, for example, the New York Times was reporting, their allies in Congress, their constituents, their foreign allies and the rest of the outside world did care. (And the administration actually did, too.) Hiding from the mainstream press might have made us feel good, but it didn’t lessen its impact. And, because we’d given up trying to persuade many of these reporters, our side had a harder time coming through.

One case in point was Vice President Dick Cheney, who was one of the few administration officials who for the most part truly did not care what reporters said about him. Although he had many capable and talented press aides, the effect of the vice president’s disinterest in courting skeptical reporters and responding to every press attack was the creation of a caricature of him as a Steve Bannon of yesteryear—a mythical and mysterious shadow president who had a dictatorial bent, shady private interests, and didn’t care about the business of the American people. Cheney was none of those things, as reporting years later has begun to show. But that impression did cause damage to him and the administration.

The worst, and most consequential, result of the tune-out of the mainstream media was that many of us started to discount criticism altogether. The argument is dangerously seductive: If the media is so biased against us, therefore everything they report, and everything people on their programs say, is also biased and untrue. Cloistered in a world in which bad news is filtered out and good news is always sought created a false perspective that did more damage to us than the media ever did.

We demanded a focus on the “good” things happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, gradually discounting the bombings, violence, disorganization and chaos underway. For some time, we doubled down on strategies that didn’t seem to work because we decided they were working, just not being reported fairly or accurately. It was only when the president turned to the advice that had been freely offered in the media for years—specifically on the need for a new approach and a “surge” of forces in Iraq—did things begin to improve there.

As the economy veered toward catastrophe, the president would go out and speak in an effort to reassure the markets … and the Dow would collapse 300 or 400 points each time. As with Iraq, for some time we didn’t think that maybe there was a problem with our message or that critics may have had valid points. Instead, we sent the poor guy out again and again to say the same thing, with the same results. It was only when the administration brought all sides together, including some of its sharpest critics, did a consensus for dealing with the disaster emerge.

If Republicans were hostile to the media back then—and in some cases for good reason—it’s far worse now. One of the main reasons Trump won the presidency was because he effectively channeled conservatives’ anger and disdain at media coverage of their beliefs and positions—and the media’s growing tendency to see the world from the elite confines of America’s coasts. Indeed, a recent study showed that 91 percent of coverage of the Trump administration has been negative. But that doesn’t mean the media is irrelevant, or can be ignored. Instead there needs to be an even more aggressive effort to challenge, respond and, where possible, find ways to see each other’s perspectives more accurately.

The danger and lesson for the Trump administration is clear: In a media environment where everything the president says and does is grist for his many media critics, and many reporters are demonstrating a clear, well let’s just say, zeal to confront and expose any perceived missteps, the temptation to shun and ignore all criticism is very strong. But doing so will only leave the administration defenseless from attacks and increasingly tone deaf to the legitimate concerns media outlets often bring to the fore.

For a time, the administration seemed to be going in the wrong direction last week on Obamacare repeal. One can almost hear Bush-era echoes in the strategy: “Everyone in the media says we will fail; fine, we’ll ignore them and go forward anyway.” Fortunately for them, they pulled back.

The aftermath of the repeal failure presents an opportunity to learn from this, and take heed of the generous offering of criticism the media puts forward every day (some of it occasionally even coming from people trying to help). If history is any guide, listening to critics, or at least being open to them, will prove far more valuable than pretending they don’t exist.

Matt Latimer is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is currently a co-partner in Javelin, a literary agency and communications firm based in Alexandria, and contributing editor at Politico Magazine.

Pruitt takes fire from conservatives in climate showdown

Scott Pruitt is pictured. | Getty

In discussions with the White House over the executive order Trump is scheduled to sign on Tuesday, Scott Pruitt successfully argued against including language revoking the agency’s 2009 “endangerment finding.” | Getty

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is coming under fire from conservatives amid a simmering behind-the-scenes fight over how far to take President Donald Trump’s push to undo his predecessor’s climate change agenda.

In discussions with the White House over the executive order Trump is scheduled to sign on Tuesday, Pruitt successfully argued against including language revoking the agency’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” according to two sources close to the issue.

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The endangerment finding declared that greenhouse gas emissions threaten human health and welfare and made EPA legally responsible for regulating carbon dioxide. It later set in motion much of former President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. To many conservative skeptics of mainstream climate science, overturning the finding is an essential first step toward successfully undoing Obama administration climate regulations on everything from power plants to vehicles.

But Pruitt, with the backing of several White House aides, argued in closed-door meetings that the legal hurdles to overturning the finding were massive, and the administration would be setting itself up for a lengthy court battle.

A cadre of conservative climate skeptics are fuming about the decision — expressing their concern to Trump administration officials and arguing Pruitt is setting himself up to run for governor or the Senate. They hope the White House, perhaps senior adviser Stephen Bannon, will intervene and encourage the president to overturn the endangerment finding.

Trump administration officials have not totally ruled out eventually targeting the endangerment finding. Conservative groups have petitioned the EPA to look at reopening it, one source said, and the agency may eventually be compelled to respond to the petition. Axios first reported the news of the petition.

“Getting rid of the Clean Power Plan is just not enough,” said Myron Ebell, the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the former leader of Trump’s EPA transition team.

Ebell warned that leaving the endangerment finding in place would compel the Trump administration to come up with a replacement approach to regulating emissions from power plants and other sources that might not be too dissimilar from Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

“Before you know it you end up having to do a Trump Clean Power Plan,” he said.

James Delingpole, a Breitbart News columnist, blasted Pruitt on Monday, arguing he is “more interested in building his political career than he is taking on the Green Blob, insiders report.” Bannon ran Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign last summer.

Delingpole, who first reported that Pruitt advocated against reopening the endangerment finding, even suggested that the EPA administrator should resign.

“But what President Trump needs now more than ever are administrators with the political will to do the right thing — which is, after all, the reason so many Americans voted for him,” he wrote. “If Scott Pruitt is not up to that task, then maybe it’s about time he did the decent thing and handed over the reins to someone who is.”

Neither a White House spokesman nor an EPA spokesman responded to a request for comment on this story.

The conservative criticism of Pruitt a marks a major shift. Pruitt, a skeptic of mainstream climate science himself, was hailed by Republicans as a top-notch choice to lead the agency. “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” Pruitt said in a recent interview.

Reopening the endangerment finding is much easier said than done.

Any decision to revoke it would require a lengthy notice-and-comment rulemaking, which would lead to certain litigation brought by environmentalists and states like California and New York. To survive a court challenge, Trump officials would have to prove to a court that greenhouse gases no longer pose a danger — something most observers say would not fly before any judge given the depth of scientific evidence on climate change.

The fracas over the endangerment finding comes amid internal unrest at the EPA.

Pruitt has expressed frustration at the White House’s slow pace in nominating deputies to help him carry out the president’s agenda, according to a person close to him. The executive order Trump will sign on Tuesday will instruct EPA to begin rewriting Obama’s climate regulations for power plants, a process that could be complicated by the agency’s barebones staff of political appointees.

The EPA administrator is also facing a massive 31 percent cut to his agency’s budget.

Pruitt publicly raised concerns about the White House’s initial proposed cuts, which amounted to about a 25 percent reduction, arguing for preserving funding for water grants and the brownfield program. Some White House officials were annoyed by Pruitt’s comments, according to a person close to the matter. And the White House then slashed the EPA’s budget even further.

Pruitt’s first weeks on the job have been marred by personality clashes.

David Schnare, a member of the Trump administration’s beachhead team at EPA, resigned from the agency earlier this month in frustration.

Schnare has publicly remained cryptic about his reasons for leaving, saying that the matter is “complex.” But he said he was bothered by disloyalty to Trump among both political appointees and career employees at EPA. But Pruitt’s allies say Schnare is a disgruntled ex-employee who is unfairly targeting them.

Meanwhile, EPA officials have expressed frustration at the presence of former Washington State Sen. Don Benton, the agency’s White House-assigned senior adviser.

Benton is expected to soon leave the agency, multiple sources told POLITICO. And EPA is expected to bring in two new communications staffers, the sources said. The agency is eyeing J.P. Freire, a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), as its new communications director and Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman at the American Chemistry Council, as its deputy communications director. Neither Freire nor Bowman responded to requests for comment.

Anthony Adragna contributed to this story.

Schumer headed for epic clash with McConnell

At their first sit-down as party leaders in December, Chuck Schumer pledged to tell Mitch McConnell exactly what’s on his mind going forward — no subterfuge or backbiting.

“You and Harry didn’t get along,” Schumer recalled saying, referring to his predecessor, Harry Reid. “Each of you thought the other was a liar. But I’ve learned in life if people think people are liars, sometimes they misconceive things when they don’t know the whole story.” Schumer went on: “Mitch, I’m from Brooklyn. I will tell you what I think. Sometimes you’ll like it, sometimes you won’t. But I’m not going to try to surprise you.”

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Schumer wasn’t kidding about laying it all out in the open. The Democratic leader is now predicting victory over McConnell in two partisan confrontations about to come to a head, over the Supreme Court vacancy and a potential government shutdown. Never mind that the Democratic Party is in its weakest state in more than a decade.

“They’re in charge. Government shuts down, it’s on their back. We have leverage,” Schumer said in a lengthy interview in his Capitol suite, the same spot where Reid held court with reporters. If Democrats block Neil Gorsuch and McConnell kills the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, “the onus is on them.”

The Democratic leader from New York has been in the job less than three months — and largely relegated to the sidelines. Republicans have pursued an almost entirely partisan agenda, but will need Democratic votes to fund the government and — short of invoking the so-called nuclear option — confirm Gorsuch.

If Schumer emerged from the election in an accommodating mood, those days appear long gone. The New Yorker made clear he’s itching for a fight. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play: Prevail and he’ll open his tenure as leader showing he can take on President Donald Trump and win. Lose, and the bravado looks like a lot of talk.

Democrats notched a huge win last week when the Republican Obamacare repeal effort crashed and burned in the House. Though Schumer was largely a bystander, he called it the “most consequential” moment of his young tenure.

But in many ways the Democratic leader’s most critical work is just beginning.

He will be judged by his party on whether he can prevent Gorsuch’s confirmation, any further attempts at repeal of Obamacare and President Donald Trump from forcing Congress to pay for a border wall in a must-pass funding bill next month. This summer, the debt ceiling will need to be raised to avoid a default. And next year, he’s defending 25 Senate seats.

His relationship with McConnell is largely untested, and in crisis situations it often falls to the Senate leaders to negotiate on behalf of all of Washington. The two have barely talked as leaders, negotiating most Senate business through aides, and the Democratic leader was surprised in an interview to learn McConnell’s first name is “Addison” — a popular bit of trivia on Capitol Hill.

People close to both men are starting to worry about how the next few months between them will develop.

“I don’t think they’ve had a good chance to get started on a relationship,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “Democrats are in such a state of shock, and Schumer’s having to respond to that. It really makes it difficult for him to develop a relationship with the majority leader that I would hope they could.”

The trial by fire will begin next month, as negotiations to fund the government past April 28 begin in earnest and McConnell seeks to jam through Gorsuch’s nomination in a fight that could end the filibuster for high court nominees.

Schumer is confident he can block McConnell from filling a Supreme Court vacancy — and that McConnell might not have the votes to gut the filibuster to get Gorsuch through.

“There’s been an almost seismic shift in the caucus,” against Gorsuch, Schumer said. As for McConnell changing the rules in response, the minority leader added: “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. … There are people in his caucus who really don’t want to change the rules, OK?”

Schumer also insists he has the “upper hand” in negotiations to keep the government open, reasoning that Republicans will get blamed for a shutdown even if it’s Democrats who vote down a spending bill because it contains funding for the border wall.

Schumer is no stranger to audacious predictions, but he’s had a spotty record of late. Last year, he ventured that Senate Republicans would turn against McConnell’s Supreme Court blockade. He also forecast that a new “generation” of Democrats would be ushered in by Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.

In an interview in January, McConnell cited Schumer as an example of the kind of overconfidence that can backfire against a party. When asked about Republican prospects of picking up Senate seats across a fertile battleground map in 2018, McConnell noted the widespread predictions last year that Democrats would win the chamber. He suggested that Schumer became a bit too enamored with Democrats’ favorable 2016 map and started “measuring the curtains” as potential majority leader.

Schumer said he doesn’t calibrate his statements based on how they might be judged for “posterity or history.”

“I say what I think. Generally I have a pretty good record,” he said. “But I make mistakes. I sure did with the Hillary campaign. And the only consolation is, so did everybody else.”

Despite his minority status, a seething liberal base and crises looming, Schumer seemed in exceedingly good spirits last week as he chomped on Cheerios and slurped on a Diet Pepsi during an interview. He sprawled out in his chair, quizzed this reporter on his background and recounted being shaken down by crooked police in Montenegro.

McConnell’s allies believe Schumer’s relaxed air and bullishness about his party’s positioning belies his actual situation. They say McConnell is a far more seasoned negotiator than Schumer and is not facing the kind of pressure from the base that liberals are putting on Democrats.

“Left to his own devices, Chuck is” pragmatic, said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Republican leadership who works out alongside Schumer in the Senate gym. “But he’s got so much pressure on him from his left in the caucus. And that’s where the center of gravity in their caucus is.”

Schumer has disappointed Republicans with his moves to the left in recent weeks. He urged Democrats to avoid talking with the GOP about health care and is encouraging them to stay there until the GOP abandons its position of repealing Obamacare.

Democrats would work with McConnell only if “he would tomorrow say, ‘We’re not going to repeal, we’re going to work to improve it,'” Schumer said.

In contrast to McConnell’s unilateral decision within hours of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last February to refuse to take up a replacement until after the presidential election, Schumer arrives at these positions only after protracted conversations with Democratic senators. He constantly speaks to his members individually, even memorizing their phone numbers on his signature flip phone rather than program them.

“His M.O. has been to consult endlessly. He’s like a vacuum cleaner in absorbing ideas and reaching out at all hours of the day or not. He’s talking at 11 o’clock at night,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Democrats say they’ve been surprised by his enthusiasm given the grim position his party is in. And so is Schumer.

He said he fell into a deep funk for three days after Clinton lost and Democrats blew their best chance at taking back the Senate until 2020. But on the fourth day, Schumer says, “it was like a thunderbolt hit me, almost a message from God.”

“I said to myself if Hillary won and you were majority leader, the job would be more fun and it would be a lot easier. And most importantly you’d get to do some good things,” Schumer said. “But with Trump as president and you as minority leader, the job is much more important. That has fueled me ever since.”

Congress may stiff Trump on wall funding

Congressional Republicans might deliver some more bad news for President Donald Trump, fresh off their embarrassing failure to scrap Obamacare: No new money is coming to build his wall.

Trump hoped to jump-start construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with money in a must-pass government funding bill. But Democratic leaders are vowing to block any legislation that includes a single penny for the wall.

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With the GOP consumed by its own divisions, the White House and Hill Republicans will have to rely on Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown next month in what would be another disaster for Trump’s fledgling presidency.

Republican leaders, wary of this, are considering a plan that would not directly tie the border wall money to the April 28 government funding deadline. Some Republican insiders worry that the president cannot afford another major legislative setback — and they believe a shutdown showdown would result in just that.

While no decision has been made by GOP leadership, Republican lawmakers may decide to decouple the two to avoid a confrontation with Democrats. If they do, the chances of getting Trump’s wall funding passed this spring become slim.

“It remains to be seen,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) in an interview. “What I would like to see is a plan for how the money would be spent and a good faith discussion about what border security is really composed of. We haven’t had that.”

Asked about the prospects for a lapse in government funding, Cornyn was definitive: “There’s not going to be a shutdown.”

The White House made an initial request earlier this month for $1.4 billion in border wall funding as part of a package that boosts defense spending by $30 billion, with the thought that it would hitch a ride to the broader government funding bill due next month. Republicans expect the final price tag for the wall could be more than $20 billion.

The problem is that polls show the border wall is not all that popular, particularly if the United States is paying for it, and it does not unify congressional Republicans in the way Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch or even the basic goal of repealing Obamacare have done. That makes it a harder sell to the rank-and-file GOP — especially if pressing it means playing a government shutdown blame game with Democrats.

“The border wall is probably not a smart investment,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who proposes funding the wall as part a package legalizing some young undocumented immigrants and beefing up enforcement.

Several sources said it is unclear whether Trump wants to take the fight to Democrats over the wall or avoid a shutdown battle. His Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in recent weeks has suggested the administration will focus more on the wall in the future, perhaps as late as fiscal 2019. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But building the wall was Trump’s signature campaign promise. Pushing off funding for it now would leave Trump with another unchecked campaign pledge at a time the White House is thirsty for a victory after its Obamacare debacle.

Some defense hawks, like Graham, are concerned that the border wall fight could complicate an effort to get extra spending for the military.

“Democrats, I think, are in a spot where they’re open-minded to military spending as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of” domestic spending, Graham said. “Here’s what I’d tell my colleagues in the House: If you don’t think the Defense Department is an emergency situation, you’ve just stopped listening.”

Of course, some in the GOP are itching for a border battle. A senior Republican source suggested Trump could conceivably win a shutdown fight if he went to the mat to defend it: “This is his signature issue. I cannot imagine a scenario where the Trump administration loses on the border wall funding. If I were them, I’d dare the Democrats to shut down the government over this.”

Another senior House Republican source disagreed completely: “The Trump administration can’t have another disaster on its hands. I think right now they have to show some level of competence and that they can govern.”

Republicans began the year thinking that they could get moderate Democrats and perhaps even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to fund construction of a wall that some Democrats have supported in the past. But Schumer has warned McConnell that his party will not support any “riders” in the funding bill intended to jam Democrats with conservative policies.

“The wall is a poison-pill rider,” Schumer said in an interview. “They’ll do it at their peril.”

Other than the issue of the wall, the spending process on Capitol Hill is proceeding apace. Republicans and Democrats are working diligently together on a measure to fund the government through September that can appeal to the center of each party, according to lawmakers and aides.

But adding the wall into the mix would create a toxic political environment.

“That’s a bigger problem,” said a Republican senator familiar with the emerging spending bills. Including wall funding in the must-pass government funding bill “would be hard.”

House Republicans are expected to act first.

While the chamber operates on majority rule and could conceivably write red-meat appropriations bills that include wall funding, GOP leaders expect a significant number of conservatives to defect on any government funding bill, as they have in the past.

And after the hard-line House Freedom Caucus brought down the Obamacare replacement bill last week, GOP insiders worry they can’t depend on them to help get major legislation across the finish line.

The conservative caucus discussed giving Trump “greater flexibility” on spending bills during a closed-door Monday night meeting, according to Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows — so long as it includes funding for Trump’s wall.

“We understand that we have a very narrow margin of victory… and we understand it may require us to take more difficult votes than we have in the previous Congress,” the North Carolina Republican told reporters.

One option for the House is to pass the government funding bill and the border and defense package in a way that allows the Senate to easily separate the two measures later.

Republicans could pass a bipartisan bill keeping the government open and then attach a second GOP bill with wall funding. That would let the Senate strip the wall provision from the must-pass bill to avert a government shutdown, and the House would be forced to swallow what the Senate can pass.

If Trump insists, House GOP leaders could include the wall money directly in the government funding bill — but they could lose only 22 Republicans if they receive no Democratic support.

Even if the House manages to pass a spending measure that includes funding for the wall, Republicans will need at least eight Senate Democrats to break a filibuster to fund the government, something Schumer says isn’t happening if border wall money is included.