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Trump pledges ‘we’ll keep the government open’ days ahead of shutdown deadline

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters on Sept. 26 that he expects President Trump to sign a new spending bill, averting a government shutdown. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump pledged Wednesday that he would not allow the government to partially shut down next week, backing down from his demand that Congress appropriate billions of dollars for new construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Keeping the government open after Sunday would require Trump to sign a bipartisan spending bill from Congress, something he had resisted committing to for weeks. But Wednesday, with anxiety building on Capitol Hill, he suggested that he planned to acquiesce.

The bill would fund the military and some other government programs through September 2019 and other government operations through Dec. 7. The House passed the legislation 361 to 61 on Wednesday and sent it to Trump.

“We’ll keep the government open. We’re going to keep the government open,” the president told reporters during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York.

The bill passed Wednesday punts the fight over border-wall spending until after the midterm elections, keeping the Department of Homeland Security and some other agencies running at current spending levels through early December.

It contains big spending increases for the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services for 2019.

The defense spending is a win for Trump and congressional Republicans, but without the border-wall money Trump wanted, his support for the spending package had been in doubt.

Ryan, McConnell try to coax Trump away from shutdown

His comments Wednesday came after he had repeatedly teased the idea of a shutdown, at times suggesting he would not let government funding expire and at other times suggesting he was open to doing so.

Trump called the legislation “ridiculous” in a tweet last week and demanded to know where his wall money was. Trump repeatedly promised during his campaign that the wall would be paid for by Mexico, but he has recently sought $5 billion from Congress to extend construction of the wall.

Trump had previously suggested it could be good politics to shut down the government to fight for his border wall, but congressional GOP leaders argued it would be a political disaster that would achieve nothing.

The legislation passed the Senate last week and drew wide bipartisan support in both chambers, despite complaints from some conservatives who object to high domestic spending levels and the absence of conservative policy priorities such as a provision blocking funding for Planned Parenthood.

Trump’s commitment to sign the new legislation only postpones a fight over money for the border wall, however.

Some conservatives questioned whether they would be in any better position to get Trump’s wall money after the midterm elections.

It is unclear that there is any strategy for extracting the money from Congress at that point, because Senate Democrats would have to go along with any such plan.

“I don’t think it’s a plan that works. I don’t see anywhere our leverage is better to get wall funding on December 7 than it is on October 7,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who talks frequently with Trump. “So at some point you have to maintain and keep our campaign promises. And at this point I fail to see the merits of this strategy.”

Meadows voted no on the spending bill Wednesday but said he had not spoken with Trump about it. “I think he’s going to see what the will of the American people is and make a decision based on that,” Meadows said.

Although congressional GOP leaders all along have asserted they expect Trump to sign their legislation and avert a shutdown, Trump’s statements Wednesday were his first public declaration that he would do so.

Earlier, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had offered similar assurances, telling reporters: “I’m confident he will sign it. . . . This funds our military, this funds opioids, this does a lot of the things that we all want to accomplish together, and we’ve had very good conversations with the president.”

In March, Trump threatened at the last minute to veto an enormous government-wide spending bill Congress had sent him for the 2018 fiscal year.

The president ultimately signed the bill but did so reluctantly, amid a conservative backlash over big domestic spending increases Democrats had won in exchange for big Pentagon spending increases sought by Republicans.

Wednesday’s legislation wraps up spending bills for the Pentagon and the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments, all told accounting for more than 60 percent of all discretionary spending.

Discretionary spending is the portion of the federal budget that Congress doles out annually — as opposed to what are called “mandatory” spending programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that operate without annual appropriations from Congress.

The full-year Pentagon and HHS spending bills for 2019 are paired with short-term legislation keeping the entire government running through Dec. 7.

The Pentagon budget for 2019 would be $606.5 billion under the legislation passed Wednesday — a $17 billion increase over 2018.

Funding for the Labor and Education departments and HHS would total $178 billion, a $1 billion increase from 2018 and almost $11 billion more than Trump requested in his budget proposal for 2019.

GOP leaders made the decision to pair Pentagon spending popular with Republicans with health and education spending popular with Democrats and attach it all to a short-term spending bill keeping the government open. The result is that if Trump vetoes the short-term spending bill he also vetoes a big increase in defense spending sought by his generals.

Even though Congress is again against a shutdown deadline without completing work on all 12 annual must-pass spending bills, progress on appropriations this year has been a marked improvement over years past. If passed and signed by Trump, the defense spending bill will mark the first time in almost a decade the Pentagon has been funded on time.

“It is a really important thing for our troops, for the sake of good government, that for the first time in nearly a decade DOD has its money on time,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Pentagon spending bill contains a host of provisions Thornberry hailed as a boon to the nation’s armed forces, including $5 billion on recruitment, $24 billion to add new ships to the nation’s fleet and $32 billion to replace old or broken aircraft.

The Labor-HHS-Education bill also contains numerous items, some of which are bipartisan priorities, including $39 billion for the National Institutes of Health, a $2 billion increase from 2018; and $3.8 billion to combat the opioid crisis, an increase of $206 million.

The short-term bill extends current funding levels for agencies including DHS, whose 2019 budgets have not been completed by Congress. When lawmakers return to the Capitol after the midterm elections, they will work to finish up those other bills.

On the homeland-security bill, the major sticking point will be reconciling the $1.6 billion provided for Trump’s border wall in the Senate version of the bill with the $5 billion agreed to by House Republicans. Trump wants the higher number.