Government careens toward shutdown after Trump's wall demand
The federal government was careening toward a partial shutdown Friday after President Donald Trump's quest for a border wall left Congress without a clear plan to keep the government running past a midnight deadline.
The Senate was being called back to session to consider a package approved by House Republicans late Thursday that includes the $5.7 billion Trump wants for the border with Mexico. It is almost certain to be rejected by the Senate. Senators already passed their own bipartisan package earlier in the week to keep the government running with border security at existing levels, $1.3 billion, but no money for the wall. Both bills would extend funding through Feb. 8.
The White House said Trump will not travel to Florida on Friday as planned for the Christmas holiday if the government is shutting down. More than 800,000 federal workers will be facing furloughs or forced to work without pay if a resolution is not reached before funding expires at midnight Friday.
"The president's been clear from the beginning, he wants something that gives border security and he's not going to sign something that doesn't have that," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
At issue is funding for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests.
Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are funded for the year and would continue to operate as usual. The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, would not be affected by any government shutdown because it's an independent agency.
The shutdown crisis could be one of the final acts of the House GOP majority before relinquishing control to Democrats in January. Congress had been on track to fund the government but lurched when Trump, after a rare lashing from conservative supporters, declared Thursday he would not sign a bill without the funding. Conservatives want to keep fighting. They warn that "caving" on Trump's repeated wall promises could hurt his 2020 re-election chances, and other Republicans' as well.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned senators they may need to return to Washington for a vote Friday. Many senators already left town for the holidays.
"Now we find compromise," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said. "We have time right now to get it done."
Late Thursday, the GOP-led House voted largely along party lines, 217-185, to attach the border wall money to the Senate's bill after GOP leaders framed the vote as a slap-back to Nancy Pelosi. She is poised to become House speaker on Jan. 3 and had warned Trump in a televised Oval Office meeting last week that he wouldn't have the votes for the wall.
House Republicans also tacked on nearly $8 billion in disaster aid for coastal hurricanes and California wildfires.
Some Republicans senators cheered on the House, but prospects in the Senate are grim amid strong opposition from Democrats. Even though Republicans have a slim majority, 60 votes are needed to approve the bill there.
One possibility Friday is that the Senate strips the border wall out of the bill but keeps the disaster funds and sends it back to the House. House lawmakers said they were being told to stay in town for more possible votes.
With Pelosi's backing, the Senate-passed bill likely has enough support for House approval with votes mostly from Democratic lawmakers, who are still the minority, and some Republicans.
Others were not so sure. "I don't see how we avoid a shutdown," said retiring Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he was not convinced after a White House meeting with GOP leaders that Trump would sign the Senate bill.
"I looked him in the eyes today, and he was serious about not folding without a fight," Meadows said.
Trump's sudden rejection of the Senate-approved legislation, after days of mixed messages, sent Republican leaders scrambling for options days before Christmas.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, exiting the hastily called meeting with Trump at the White House, said Thursday, "We're going to go back and work on adding border security to this, also keeping the government open, because we do want to see an agreement."
By afternoon, Trump shifted his terminology, saying he's not necessarily demanding a border wall but "steel slats" — which is similar to the border security fencing already provided for in the bill.
"We don't use the word 'wall' necessarily, but it has to be something special to do the job," Trump said at a farm bill signing at the White House. The nuance could provide Trump a way to try to proclaim victory since the Senate bill includes money for fencing, but not the wall.
Democratic leaders have made clear they will not budge on their opposition to the border wall that Trump campaigned on saying Mexico would pay for it. Mexico has refused.
"The Trump temper tantrum will shut down the government, but it will not get him his wall," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Democrats favor border security, Schumer said, but he denounced the wall as "ineffective, unnecessary and exorbitantly expensive."
Ryan and McCarthy had endured complaints during a private morning meeting earlier Thursday from rank-and-file Republicans in the Capitol that they were closing out their majority without a fight on a major issue.
Trump interrupted the basement session with a phone call to Ryan, and then the president lashed out at Republican leaders on Twitter.
Ryan had promised a "big fight" after November's midterm elections, but as Republicans lost House control, negotiations over the year-end spending bill have largely been between Trump and Democrats.
"I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership," Trump tweeted.
Trump has bounced back and forth with mixed messages. Just last week he said he would be "proud" to shut down the government over the wall. Earlier this week he appeared to shelve shutdown threats, with the White House saying he was open to reviewing whatever bill Congress could send him.
"Republicans are in a state of disarray," said Pelosi. "Wall funding is a nonstarter."