Congress moves to avert border wall shutdown
WASHINGTON - The border wall saga continues - likely into 2019 and beyond, key Texas lawmakers said Wednesday.
With no funding agreement in sight for President Donald Trump’s promised border wall, congressional leaders moved Wednesday to put off until Feb. 8 a spending showdown that could partially shut down the federal government.
The effort to avert a potential closure came after the White House signaled it might back down from Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5 billion, suggesting instead that there are “other ways” to get money for the border wall.
A new funding bill by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came after several days of mixed messages from the White House about whether Trump would accept a short term deal to avoid a shutdown.
Even as White House aide Stephen Miller said that the president was “absolutely” willing to shut down the government over the wall, Trump floated a plan to have the military build it, an idea that has run into skepticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Texas Republican John Cornyn, ending his six-year-stint as GOP Majority Whip, said Trump is considering “reprogramming” past Defense Department appropriations, including money for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction projects.
“I’m sure the president has his lawyers looking at whether that’s feasible,” Cornyn said, “and whether he could do that without Congress’ approval.”
Cornyn blamed Democrats for the impasse, saying Trump faced “incredible intransigence” of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
On Tuesday, Schumer rejected the GOP’s latest offer of $1.6 billion border security spending, plus $1 billion in reallocated money for immigration enforcement other than a wall. Schumer called the additional pot of money a “slush fund.”
While expressing disappointment in the Democratic response, Cornyn voiced his own reservations about repurposing unspent defense dollars for a border wall.
“There’s always competing demands for money and I would want to know where that money would be shifted from,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “If it’s shifted from some account that is a non-critical function, then I might be open to it. But if it’s taking money out of the pockets of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines, I would not.”
‘We should have been taking a stand’
For Trump, signing a temporary funding measure without additional money earmarked for a wall would still mark a major concession. It comes on top of the administration’s announcement on Tuesday that it will relax some of the background check requirements for people sponsoring migrant children, a move that could speed up the release of thousands of children being held in government facilities like the controversial tent camp in Tornillo, Texas.
Immigrant advocates credited Trump’s capitulation to the Democrats’ strengthened bargaining position in the wake of midterm elections that saw them gain 40 House seats, winning control of the chamber starting in January.
“On this side of the midterms, Trump doesn’t seem so strong, invincible and domineering, does he?” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the advocacy group America’s Voice.
While Senate GOP leaders prepared a resolution extending current government funding until February 8, some House conservatives urged Republicans to dig in while they still command majorities in both chambers.
“Let me get this straight,” tweeted Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus. “Our chances of getting the Wall will be better in February when Nancy Pelosi is Speaker than now when we have the majority? Give me a break.”
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina tweeted that the government funding extension will be a “Christmas present” for Democrats: “Democrats will win, the wall will not be built, and Congress will once again have punted when we should’ve been taking a stand.”
Facing a Friday night deadline to head off a holiday government shutdown, Senate Republican leaders said they had little choice, finding themselves unable to approve wall funding without Democratic votes.
“I hope that this continuing resolution will provide us the time to work out our differences in a thoughtful manner and reach a bipartisan consensus on important national priorities,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama.
Pelosi and other Democrats also questioned whether there are enough Republican votes in the lame duck House to pass the $5 billion funding request for a wall, which Trump originally said would be paid for by Mexico. Among those who have opposed Trump’s wall proposal is West Texas Republican Will Hurd, whose district covers one-third of the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
Congress has already passed most of the government’s 2019 funding, but at least six agencies are operating under a stopgap funding law that expires at midnight Friday. Among them is the Homeland Security Department, which oversees border security and the wall.
The Senate’s original Homeland bill for 2019, approved on a bipartisan basis, includes $1.6 billion for border security, much of it for 65 miles of pedestrian fencing in the Rio Grande Valley.
The House is expected to take up the new funding extension on Thursday, possibly ending a standoff that has been building for months.
Either way the battle for Trump’s wall is not over.
“The fight over this will continue,” Cornyn said, “probably up to and including the 2020 election.”