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Government shutdown crisis grows as House OKs border wall funds

Updated December 20, 2018 - 6:10 pm

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall funds hurled the federal government closer to a shutdown as House Republicans approved a package Thursday with his $5.7 billion request that is almost certain to be rejected by the Senate.

The White House said Trump will not travel to Florida on Friday 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 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 Thursday when Trump, after a rare lashing from conservative supporters, declared 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.

The House voted largely along party lines, 217-185, after GOP leaders framed the vote as a slap-back to Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become House speaker on Jan. 3 and who had warned Trump in a televised Oval Office meeting last week that he wouldn’t have the votes for the wall.

“Now we find compromise,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said. “We have time right now to get it done.”

Trouble in Senate

The government funding package, which includes nearly $8 billion in disaster aid for coastal hurricanes and California wildfires, now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are grim amid strong opposition from Democrats. Sixty votes are needed to approve the bill there.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned senators they may need to return to Washington for a noontime vote Friday.

Many senators already left town for the holidays. The Senate approved a bipartisan bill late Wednesday to keep the government temporarily funded, with border security money at current levels, $1.3 billion, and no money for the wall. The House had been expected to vote on it Thursday.

The most likely 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.

Shifting options

Trump’s sudden rejection of the Senate-approved legislation, after days of mixed messages, sent Republican leaders scrambling for options on Capitol Hill days before Christmas.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, exiting the hastily called meeting with Trump at the White House, said, “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. The bill would keep funding at current levels for border security, including pedestrian fencing and replacement fences, but not the wall. It requires previously used designs.

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.”

McConnell met with Ryan after the House leaders returned from the meeting with Trump.

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. “Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries – but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!”

Trump’s messages

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.

Before turning on fellow Republicans, Trump had been directing his ire at Democrats, tweeting that they were “putting politics over country.”

“Republicans are in a state of disarray,” said Pelosi. ”Wall funding is a nonstarter.”

At issue in the current fight is money 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 covered for the year and would continue to operate as usual if funding lapses. 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.

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