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House Democrats ready strategy to reopen government, deny Trump wall money

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leaves a meeting at the Capitol on Dec. 12. She has vowed that the House’s new Democratic majority will not pay for a border wall. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Democrats will take control of the House on Thursday with a stark challenge to President Trump, voting on legislation that would fund the federal government while denying Trump the money he has demanded to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

GOP leaders in the Senate said they would support only a proposal that has the president’s backing. And without additional wall money, the Democrats’ offer is unlikely to break the stalemate that has shuttered large parts of the federal government since Dec. 22.

But the strategy Democrats announced Monday would usher in a new era of divided government in Washington with a dare to Trump, aimed at forcing him and Senate Republicans to take their deal or prolong a partial government shutdown.

House Democrats plan to use their new majority to vote through measures that would reopen nearly all of the shuttered federal agencies through the end of September, at funding levels Senate Republicans have previously agreed to. Those spending bills contain scores of priorities and pet projects for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans and Democrats are continuing to blame each other for the ongoing partial government shutdown, which is now in its second week. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Democratic proposal holds out one exception: The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border security, would keep its current level of funding, with no new money for a border wall. The plan would also extend the department’s budget only through Feb. 8, allowing Democrats to revisit funding for key parts of Trump’s immigration policy in a month.

“The President is using the government shutdown to try to force an expensive and ineffective wall upon the American people, but Democrats have offered two bills which separate the arguments over the wall from the government shutdown,” read a joint statement from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the likely next House speaker, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Republican leaders would have the option to pass the bipartisan bills, reopening much of the government while the border fight continued, but doing so could diminish Trump’s leverage as he demands billions in taxpayer funding for a wall.

With nine federal departments and several federal agencies going unfunded, here's who and what are impacted by the partial government shutdown. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

On Monday, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Senate, which will remain under Republican control, will bring up only legislation that has the president’s blessing.

“It’s simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won’t sign,” Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, wrote in an email Monday.

The president has asked for $5 billion in border money, far beyond the $1.3 billion that Democrats plan to vote through this week. Trump on Monday invited Democrats to continue negotiations but reiterated that he had no plans to back down.

“They can come over right now, they could’ve come over anytime. I spent Christmas in the White House, I spent New Year’s Eve now in the White House. And you know, I’m here, I’m ready to go. It’s very important,” he said in an interview with Fox News that’s airing Monday evening during the network’s New Year’s Eve programming.

“We are not giving up. We have to have border security, and the wall is a big part of border security,” he said.

Asked when he expects to meet with Schumer and Pelosi, Trump replied, “I assume when they get back.”

The White House did not comment Monday on House Democrats’ plan.

One of Trump’s close congressional allies, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), dismissed the proposal from Democrats.

“Nancy Pelosi’s newest funding proposal doesn’t represent any serious attempt to secure our border or find a compromise,” Meadows wrote on Twitter, adding that the plan was “a non-starter and will not be a legitimate answer to this impasse.”

The deadlock has resulted in what is already the longest partial government shutdown since a 16-day standoff in 2013 over the Affordable Care Act.

Some 800,000 federal workers have been affected, with an estimated 350,000 furloughed at home and the others still working because their jobs are deemed “essential.” Thus far workers have not missed a paycheck, but that will begin to happen if the shutdown is not resolved soon. Many federal contractors are without work as well.

“The biggest reaction still remains anxiety: When will this end?” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district is home to tens of thousands of federal workers. “Coupled with now the creeping reality of the financial consequences if this goes on too long, everything from ‘Can I pay rent on time?’ to ‘What kind of obligations, if any, can I incur while it’s uncertain whether I get a paycheck?’ ”

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, representing some 700,000 workers, on Monday announced that it was suing the federal government over the shutdown, writing in a statement that “the federal government is violating the law by requiring some federal employees to work without pay during a shutdown.”

In an issue unrelated to the border wall but important to federal workers, the package of full-year bills that Democrats plan to pass would include a 1.9 percent raise for civilian workers that Trump has sought to deny.

Trump orders pay freeze for federal workers

In December, Senate Republicans signed off on a plan that would have averted the shutdown but did not include new wall money, only to have Trump publicly denounce the proposal the next day. McConnell, who will remain in charge of the Senate in 2019 as the House flips to Democratic control, does not want to put his lawmakers in that position again.

The construction of a wall along the Mexican border was one of Trump’s top promises in the 2016 campaign and early in his presidency, and he vowed to make Mexico pay for it. More recently, he has asked for taxpayer money to build the wall and said Mexico will indirectly pay for it later, but his aides have struggled to explain how that will happen.

Pelosi, who is expected to be elected speaker this week, has called the wall “immoral” and said her new majority will not pay for it.

House Democrats settled on the approach of funding the Department of Homeland Security on a short-term basis after liberals objected to a proposal to fund the agency through the rest of the 2019 fiscal year, even without increasing spending at the border.

A coalition of advocacy groups, including the ACLU, sent Pelosi and Schumer a letter Friday opposing extending funding for the Department of Homeland Security for a full year, citing concerns that such an approach “clearly funds Trump’s wall project and must be rejected.”

A spokeswoman for the ACLU said Monday that the group supports extending Homeland Security funding to Feb. 8, which would allow newly empowered Democrats more latitude in determining the agency’s budget for the remainder of fiscal 2019.

Trump retreats from public view as government shutdown continues

Trump canceled a planned trip to his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., to stay in Washington to deal with the shutdown, but he has not been in touch with Democratic leaders. There have been no face-to-face negotiations since Vice President Pence and others held meetings at the Capitol on Dec. 22, the day the shutdown began. Pence made Democrats an offer that lowered proposed spending on the wall, but they rejected it in part because it included what they called a $400,000 “slush fund” that Trump could have spent on other immigration priorities.

Despite Republicans holding a bigger majority in the Senate in the next Congress, some Democratic votes will still be needed to pass funding legislation there, and Democratic senators, even more moderate ones, have been resolute against money for a wall.

That much was clear soon after the November midterms, when Schumer started gauging where Democratic senators stood on $5 billion for a border wall through one-on-one conversations in his office. Repeatedly, Democratic senators told Schumer that they would support money for border security but not Trump’s specific request, according to a person familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them.

The agencies affected by the shutdown make up about 25 percent of the portion of the federal government that is funded by Congress. The Pentagon is mostly not affected, since a spending bill for the military was passed by Congress and signed by Trump in 2018. Congress and the president also passed legislation to fund the Labor Department, the Health and Human Services Department and others, before Trump’s demands for wall money ground negotiations on other spending bills to a halt.

Programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid also are unaffected, since their budgets proceed automatically, without the need for annual congressional appropriations. The Russia investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III also is unaffected since it is paid for by a permanent, dedicated funding stream.

Correction: Some House Democrats objected to a proposal to fund the Department of Homeland Security through the rest of the 2019 fiscal year. A previous version of this story said it was the 2018 fiscal year.