Stopgap bill averts government shutdown, punts fight to Democrat-controlled House

December 20, 2018

Republicans backed down in their border security fight Wednesday and settled instead for a stopgap spending bill that would keep the government running through early February, avoiding a government shutdown and leaving the big fights for the new Congress.

Leaders had hoped for quick passage in the Senate, but as of Wednesday night they were still negotiating with a group of western-state senators who were demanding action on public lands legislation before the end of the year.

All sides still predicted they would beat Friday’s deadline for clearing the bill through Capitol Hill though the White House would not yet commit to signing it.

The short-term bill would keep dozens of departments and agencies operating through Feb. 8. Lawmakers said they’d hoped for year-long funding, but a short-term bill was better than a partial government shutdown right before Christmas.

“We need the government to remain open for the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “We need to wrap up our work for this year.”

Conservative pressure groups, though, saw the bill as a major defeat for Mr. Trump, and liberal groups crowed over their victory, convinced they’ve stymied any chances for Mr. Trump to get additional funding for his border wall.

That had been the biggest sticking point in negotiations, with the president demanding $5 billion, Senate Democrats offering $1.6 billion, and House Democrats tilting further to the left saying even that was too much.

The White House signaled this week that the president was no longer insisting on the full $5 billion inside the spending bill, and would instead look to scrounge the money from other agencies’ budgets.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Wednesday that Mr. Trump isn’t caving on the wall and that he will continue to fight for the funding.

“The president is not softening his stance,” Ms. Conway said on Fox News. “He has a responsibility to keep the government moving forward, and he has [a] responsibility to get border security. If he could do it by himself, he would have done it already.”

Democrats said they will oppose any attempt to reprogram money to go toward the wall, but appreciated the president’s back-down over a shutdown.

“It’s good news that the president has retreated from his demand that Congress fund the wall,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Congress has already approved five of the 12 annual funding bills for 2019, which cover roughly 75 percent of the federal government’s $1.2 trillion discretionary budget, including the Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments.

That left seven bills stalled, covering departments like Treasury, Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security.

They’ve been operating on stopgap money since Oct. 1.

GOP leaders were trying to assuage the western-state lawmakers’ demands for land bills, fearing such brinksmanship could open the floodgates to other lawmakers’ demands.

“The cleaner the better, I’ve always said,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican.

If the stopgap bill clears, it will push the spending fight into the new year, when Democrats will control the House, giving them added leverage.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the president may rue not taking the $1.6 billion in border wall funding he negotiated with Mr. Shelby as part of an earlier version of the Homeland Security funding bill.

“I think in retrospect a lot of people are going to say it was a mistake they didn’t accept what Sen. Shelby and I put together,” Mr. Leahy said.

Rep. Nita Lowey, New York Democrat and the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, is already drawing a line in the sand on the border wall.

“When House Democrats assume control in two weeks, my primary focus will be to pass reasonable spending legislation that does not fund President Trump’s wasteful wall,” she said.

House conservatives lamented Mr. Trump’s retreat.

“If we don’t get it done now, I don’t think it’s going to happen on Feb. 8, when Nancy Pelosi’s running the House, so we need to get that done in the next two days,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican.

Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.

Update hourly