Shutdown Looms: Despite White House Retreat, No Border Funding Solution in Sight

Trump Getting Squeezed
Getty/AP Photos
MATTHEW BOYLE
Washington, D.C.

About a fourth of the federal government is barreling toward another partial shutdown at the end of this week with no solution for border wall funding in reach, and leaders of the Republican and Democrat parties at a standstill just days away from the deadline.

Congress has not taken up a spending bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other parts of the government, as President Donald Trump has previously insisted upon $5 billion for his planned border wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and Democrats have refused to budge on the matter. The White House on Tuesday, through Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signaled a retreat from the president’s previous position to an as-of-yet-unexpressed willingness to compromise on the border wall funding as she blamed the Senate for the lack of a deal, all while a solution remains elusive.

While the White House has scaled back the original demand, the government remains unfunded past Friday with no apparent deal in Congress’s or the administration’s grasp yet–and that has opened up a circular firing squad among U.S. leaders over where responsibility lies. The blame game comes as the White House is backing down from President Trump’s original push for $5 billion in border wall funding in this spending bill.

Last week, Trump sounded off in a heated Oval Office argument with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi–the likely incoming Speaker of the House when Democrats take the majority in January after their midterm election boons–with both sides threatening to hold firm over the border wall money.

During a rare White House briefing on Tuesday, Sanders put the onus for a lack of a funding deal on Congress–particularly the Senate–and said the White House is waiting to see whatever can pass the chamber.

“You know, at this point, the Senate has thrown out a lot of ideas,” Sanders told reporters. “We’re disappointed in the fact that they’ve yet to actually vote on something and pass something. So when they do that, we’ll make a determination on whether or not we’re going to sign that.”

Sanders putting the blame for lack of a deal on Congress is literally the exact opposite of what GOP leaders in the Senate have said. Republican Senators driving this process on Capitol Hill have all said they are looking to the White House for guidance, and that they have yet to receive clear answers from the president and his team.

“We don’t know,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said when asked what President Trump wants out of this funding battle, per Politico in a report earlier on Tuesday before the White House briefing.

“If there’s a plan, I think at the moment it’s the president and the Democrats trying to figure out what they can agree upon,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the number three in Senate GOP leadership, added.

While the White House had remained firm through Tuesday morning behind the president’s commitment to$5 billion for the border wall or nothing–which would lead to the partial shutdown at the end of this week–Sanders appeared on Fox News earlier in the day before her afternoon briefing to begin walking the administration’s position back. Sanders said:

We will continue to have these conversations with both Senate and House Republicans and Democrats. Our team has been in constant communication. We’re continuing to do that–I’m not going to negotiate here. But we’ve been talking to them even as late as–as recently as this morning. Those conversations continue. The President has been clear about what the parameters are that we he wants to see in the legislation–and we hope Democrats will not play games and will support legislation, frankly, that they have supported in the past. Democrats have voted for legislation that we want to see happen.

When pressed by Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer on whether the president would take half of the $5 billion that he wants for the border wall, Sanders replied:

We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion that we will work with Congress if they make sure we get a bill passed that provides not just the funding for the wall but there is a piece of legislation that’s been pushed around that Democrats actually voted [for], 26-5 out of committee, that provides roughly $26 billion in border security including $1.6 billion for the wall. That’s something we would be able to support as long as we can couple that with other funding resources that help us get to the $5 billion.

When asked if the Trump administration is pushing for a more “creative” way to fund the wall, Sanders replied to Hemmer that the administration is, indeed. Sanders said:

Look, we’ve been very transparent with both Republicans and Democrats–the House and the Senate–on what we want to see and we want them to work with us. At the end of the day, we don’t want to shut down the government–we want to shut down the border from illegal immigration, from drugs coming into this country, and make sure we know who’s coming and why they’re coming. That’s what the president is focused on and he’s not going to back down until he gets what he needs to make sure the people of this country are protected.

Asked about senators saying that the White House has not been clear, Sanders told Fox News that she sees it differently–and  argued that the White House has been clear and in “constant contact” with Senate leaders on these matters–despite what senators, especially Republicans like Shelby and Thune, have been saying.

What happened later on Tuesday, though, that leaves the avenue open for a shutdown as no specific deal has been reached, is that Senate Republicans offered Senate Democrats a different deal–one that Democrats rejected.

The Washington Post summarized the quickly rejected deal offer thus:

President Trump on Tuesday retreated from his demand for $5 billion to build a border wall, as congressional Republicans maneuvered to avoid a partial government shutdown before funding expires at the end of Friday.

But Democrats immediately rejected Republicans’ follow-up offer, leaving the two sides still at impasse as hundreds of thousands of federal workers await word on whether they will be sent home without pay just before Christmas.

The new border funding offer from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calls on Congress to pass a $1.6 billion homeland security spending bill that was crafted earlier this year in a bipartisan Senate compromise.

Under the offer, Congress would also reprogram $1 billion in unspent funds that Trump could use on his immigration policies. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who oversees the panel in charge of homeland security funding, said the reprogrammed money would not be able to be used for a physical wall but could be spent on other border security measures.

Quickly after the deal was offered, though, both Schumer and Pelosi shot it down:

Sen. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told McConnell Tuesday that Democrats would not accept the deal, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the plan to reprogram the funds.

“Leader Schumer and I have said that we cannot support the offer they made of a billion-dollar slush fund for the president to implement his very wrong immigration policies,” Pelosi said. “So that won’t happen.”

Back in the briefing room, and in her Fox News appearance, Sanders attempted to soften the blow of the president’s border wall cave by presenting a new argument–that the administration would be seeking to fund the wall from a variety of other sources than new congressional appropriations. But Sanders has not specified exactly what she means by this–a signal that the administration is angling to frame this retreat as strategic, even if it is not.

Sanders said the White House is “looking at every avenue available to us possible” for extra bits of cash for a border wall. She continued:

The President has asked every one of his Cabinet Secretaries to look for funding that can be used to protect our borders and give the President the ability to fulfill his constitutional obligation to protect the American people by having a secure border. So we’re looking at the other options. In the meantime, we’ll see what the Senate does, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that front.

When pressed later in the briefing on this so-called “reprogramming” of already appropriated funding, something Pelosi argued the administration cannot legally do, Sanders said that there are various “pots of money” around the government that could supplement funding of the border wall.

“I would never use Nancy Pelosi as my source for legal authority on probably anything,” Sanders said. “But I would use attorneys that work here at the White House and in agencies – that that’s their entire job is determining whether or not something is legal. And we’re looking to those individuals to find out those specific pots of money that can be used for that.”

It remains to be seen exactly what “pots of money” are available, how much cash exactly they could provide, whether it would be legal to use them for a border wall, whether the administration will try to do so, whether the administration would succeed if it tried, and what the fallout would be if the administration went this route.

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