Government shutdown: Trump retreats on border wall, Congress seeks stopgap spending bill
Members of Congress resigned themselves Tuesday to another short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown and get the government through the holidays and into the new year after Democrats rejected a new Republican offer to give President Trump half the border wall money he’s seeking.
After months of red lines, Mr. Trump backed off his demand for $5 billion from Congress, with the White House saying it will scrounge for the money elsewhere. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said they have ordered all departments and agencies to see if they can free up any cash to legally redirect to the border.
With that retreat, GOP senators went to Democrats and suggested a deal for $1.6 billion in border wall money as part of a full Homeland Security spending bill similar to a bipartisan bill that already cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee but Democrats shot that down.
“Let me be clear. The Republican offer today would not pass either chamber,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
Lawmakers are racing a Friday deadline to pass the final 25 percent of government funding for fiscal 2019. Without action, some departments and agencies would shut down, sending hundreds of thousands of workers into forced furlough and leaving others working without pay.
Among the departments affected are Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Justice, Treasury and the big sticking point of Homeland Security.
With no long-term solution apparent, leaders of both parties said they’re looking to a stopgap bill, or “continuing resolution,” to keep those functions going into January. Those departments have been functioning on a continuing resolution since the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.
“There’s certainly bipartisan support for avoiding a government shutdown,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who added he is convinced they will avoid a Christmas-time breakdown.
He pinned blame for the demise of Tuesday’s deal on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the likely next House speaker, who he said was unable to get an agreement approved by her increasingly left-leaning caucus.
“My impression is that the incoming speaker feels she doesn’t have the latitude to settle this,” Mr. McConnell said.
Mrs. Pelosi, though, said the deal Mr. McConnell had offered had included not only $1.6 billion in border wall money, but also another $1 billion she called a “slush fund” that the president could have used to carry out his immigration policies.
“That won’t happen,” she said.
All sides could see the border wall spending train wreck coming, but have been powerless to avoid it, with Mr. Trump repeatedly vowing to force the government into a shutdown if he didn’t get his $5 billion demand.
That made Tuesday’s retreat striking.
“We want to see what the Senate can pass,” Mrs. Sanders told reporters. “They’ve thrown out a lot of ideas.”
She said in the meantime, every Cabinet department has been asked to look for money to shift toward the wall.
“We’re looking at every avenue available to us,” she said, adding that administration lawyers have been asked to see what money can legally be moved.
Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer said any reprogramming of funds would require congressional approval, which they said would be a tough sell.
Sen. John Thune, though, called Mr. McConnell’s plan a “very reasonable offer” and said Democrats are the ones holding progress back.
“I think we’re kind of [at] an impasse,” the South Dakota Republican said, calling another short-term extension a “last resort.”
As senators left their lunches at the Capitol Tuesday, there was some talk that the Senate could speed through a short-term funding bill and then head home for Christmas as early as Thursday though Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska laughed at that prospect.
“I wouldn’t bet on that, but who knows?” Mr. Sullivan said.
House lawmakers have been out of town since last week and the next scheduled votes in that chamber aren’t scheduled until Wednesday evening, two days before the funding deadline.
While the border funding has been the major public sticking point, lawmakers said some other matters remain unresolved in the spending battle.
“All of the focus in Homeland has been on the border wall, but there are numerous other issues that still need to be worked out such as funding for ICE detention and enforcement,” a House Democratic aide said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the top Democrat on a subcommittee that oversees Commerce, Justice, and science spending, said lawmakers are still debating language tied to a new citizenship question the administration is pushing to include in the 2020 Census.
There has also been talk of tacking on language to the spending package that’s intended to prevent U.S. companies from participating in the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement legislation that has drawn the ire of civil rights groups.
Yet all sides seemed to think those matters would line up, once the border funding is settled.
Sen. James Lankford, chairman of a general government/financial services spending subcommittee, said outstanding issues in that spending bill were finished or “extremely close” to being done.
One issue is a $500 million-plus “Fund for America’s Kids and Grandkids” pushed by House Republicans that would be accessed only in the highly unlikely event that the federal government runs a surplus.
Mr. Lankford, of Oklahoma, said that issue was worked out “as far as we can tell,” but declined to say how.
“I don’t want to get in the way of any of the negotiations going on behind the scenes,” he said.