Finger-pointing, waning optimism on Capitol Hill after Trump clashes with Dems
Despite a disastrous meeting between President Donald Trump and top Democrats Tuesday, lawmakers in both parties said Wednesday they remain hopeful that a partial government shutdown can be averted.
“I still think there is a great chance we can avoid a partial government shutdown with an agreement,” Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said.
In an Oval Office argument with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Trump declared Tuesday he would be proud to let government agencies run out of money if he does not get billions of dollars for a border wall.
“I will take the mantle,” Trump said. “I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn't work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I'm going to shut it down for border security.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday he is working hard to avoid that outcome, but there are factors beyond his control.
“My goal is not to shut the government down,” he said. “As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, my goal has always been to fund the government, fund it right, fund it on time.”
Congress passed several appropriations bills before the midterm elections, including funding for the Department of Defense, but the Department of Homeland Security and many other agencies are running on a continuing resolution that expires at midnight Dec. 22. The border wall is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a deal to fund the remaining departments.
“This is something the president has been very steadfast for quite some time,” Fleischmann said. “This is not a surprise to members on either side.”
In its initial budget request for 2019, the White House sought $1.6 billion for border wall funding. More recently, Trump has demanded either the full $25 billion the project is expected to cost up front or at least $5 billion for next year.
The Senate version of the DHS appropriations bill supported by many Democrats would provide $1.6 billion for border security improvements, while the House version would give Trump the $5 billion he is seeking. Schumer and Pelosi are now offering to continue funding DHS at 2018 levels, which would mean about $1.3 billion for border fencing and other security.
“We gave the president two reasonable options to keep the government open,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “But if President Trump holds to his position, the American people will suffer needlessly.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he was “a little bit embarrassed” for the country and the world by Tuesday’s bickering, but he still believes GOP leaders can drag Trump to the negotiating table to make a fair deal.
“My hope is that the Republican leadership will calm the president down, agree that we ought to make a compromise and allow Americans, including those who work for the federal government, to get through the holidays without this kind of forced government shutdown,” Warner said.
However, Republicans maintain Democrats who are resisting building the wall are the ones forcing the government to the precipice of a shutdown for partisan purposes.
“I hope we don’t have to have a shutdown,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis. “It is so important to save money, with all the health care going to illegal immigrants, the education benefits, mucking up our criminal justice system, welfare benefits, it’s just fiscally irresponsible not to build it.”
Still, few in the GOP share Trump’s enthusiasm for a holiday shutdown he has preemptively taken the blame for.
“I give the president credit for standing up, but we have to pass legislation now,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. “I look forward to working with my colleagues who believe in border security to get that done But I think shutting the government down should be a last resort in this case.”
According to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Trump’s fight with Schumer and Pelosi may ultimately prevent a shutdown. He predicted an agreement will be reached by next Thursday.
“I think the president outlining what his number one priority for a spending bill is helps avoid a shutdown rather than head into one,” Lee said, adding, “I know that seems counterintuitive.”
After the tense White House confrontation, Sen. Shelby is counting on both sides to dial it back and get to work with a little over a week until the deadline.
“Sometimes you get up to the abyss and decide you don’t want to jump over it together,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s what happened yesterday and people pull back and say let’s fund the government, let’s do our job, and let’s go home.”
As Fleischmann said, nothing about this is terribly surprising. Every time Trump has signed a spending bill or a continuing resolution that did not appropriate wall funds, he has raged on Twitter and sworn he would never do it again. He has explicitly threatened a shutdown many times, a point Schumer hammered repeatedly in the Oval Office Tuesday.
“You say, ‘I want to shut down the government,’” Schumer said. “We don't. We want to come to an agreement. If we can't come to an agreement, we have solutions that will pass the House and Senate right now and will not shut down the government, and that's what we're urging you to do.”
Republicans convinced Trump to stand down in September and delay the fight until after the midterm elections. Even after his party lost dozens of seats in the House, though, Trump has not softened his demands or his rhetoric.
“So far, the Democrat Party has made clear they would rather keep the border open than the government open,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Tuesday. “President Trump was grateful for the opportunity to let the press into the meeting so that the American people can see firsthand that while Republicans are fighting to protect our border, Democrats are fighting to protect illegal immigrants.”
The president regularly claims his opponents want “open borders,” but Democratic lawmakers say they support many forms of border security and they have offered Trump sufficient funds to pay for it. They also note the administration still has not spent everything Congress appropriated for 2018.
“I strongly support additional border security, but I think we ought to look at what the experts say where there’s the ability to use drones, increased electronic surveillance,” Warner said. “A wall alone, even the experts say, may not be the best way to secure our border.”
Republicans accuse Democrats like Schumer of hypocrisy for voting for the 2006 Secure Fence Act during George W. Bush’s presidency but fighting Trump over his wall.
“You know, 12 years ago, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden all voted for the wall,” Grothman said. “All of a sudden, they get a president they don’t like in there, Donald Trump, who’s serious about maintaining our borders and, all of a sudden, they want to shut down the government because in this huge spending bill they can’t find billions of dollars for the wall.”
More than 20 Democratic senators did support building 700 miles of fences and barriers along sections of the border where it was believed to be most effective in 2006. Today, some of the same lawmakers object to Trump’s plan to build a longer structure stretching into areas where they say it would not work as well as other security measures.
“We recognize the president is the president, so we want to work with him to get something done,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who voted against the 2006 fence bill in the House. “What’s unacceptable is to spend billions of dollars on a wall that will be counterproductive. There’s better ways to secure our border.”
Unlike some of his GOP colleagues, Lee acknowledged both sides do want to secure the border in some way, and he expects that shared goal will lead to a compromise eventually.
“I don’t know very many members of Congress who are categorically opposed to the idea of border security spending,” he said. “There are different agreements about where we should have what kind of barricade and what other spending should be in order.”
About 75 percent of the government is already fully funded for 2019, but the remaining agencies, including DHS and the Department of Justice, will run out of money next Friday night if no agreement is reached. The general public may not immediately feel the effects of closing those offices, but hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be impacted days before Christmas.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Warner said. “I don’t think that’s right. Shutting down even a portion of the federal government right before Christmas, putting people out of work, makes no sense at all.”
Warner added that the tension Tuesday between Trump and Pelosi, who is expected to wield the speaker’s gavel in January, raises some concern about how the president will handle navigating a divided government after two years of unilateral GOP control.
“The president is going to have to work with Congress, not simply try to dictate his will and then, if he doesn’t get it, throw a temper tantrum,” he said.
Fleischmann acknowledged the president’s urgency to get money in his hands before the end of the year is likely driven by that political reality. Trump tried to highlight the GOP’s Senate gains in the midterms during Tuesday’s meeting, but the loss of the House majority will severely dampen his leverage in future negotiations.
“His chances to get the wall fully funded then are a lot less than now,” Fleischmann said. “This is a card I think he knows he has got to play, and he will play it and hopefully we’ll get the wall funded.”
Although Democrats have drawn a hard line at providing money for a wall, they insist there are still ways out of this crisis for Trump that will keep Americans safe and the entire government open.
“If the president is sincere in wanting to get our border secure, there’s a deal to be made,” Cardin said.