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GOP leaders aim to avert shutdown over wall funding, but Trump makes no promises

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), along with John Cornyn (Tex.), left, and other key Republican senators, met with President Trump about the funding he has demanded for the border wall.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), along with John Cornyn (Tex.), left, and other key Republican senators, met with President Trump about the funding he has demanded for the border wall. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Trump did not commit Thursday to avoiding a partial government shutdown next month if lawmakers don’t give him money to build a border wall, a top Republican senator said, raising the potential for a high-stakes budget battle as the GOP prepares to lose its grip on Congress.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and other GOP leaders met with Trump on Thursday about ways to fund the government. Shelby said Trump did not commit to signing a bill that does not give him all the money he wants to fund construction of a wall along the Mexico border. Shelby said Trump was noncommittal about how he planned to proceed.

“He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to keep the government open.’ We didn’t ask him that question,” Shelby told reporters after returning from the White House. “We talked about avoiding a shutdown. . . . He seemed to agree with that.”

President Trump on Nov. 7 said he "can't commit" that there will not be a government shutdown in December over funding for a wall on the southern border. (Video: Reuters)

Trump’s staff has warned him he may not get the full $5 billion he has demanded for new wall construction for 2019, according to a person briefed on the discussions who was not authorized to reveal deliberations.

GOP leaders this fall convinced Trump to delay any decision about the border wall until after the November midterm elections, fearful that a big showdown could hurt Republicans with voters. But Republicans suffered heavy losses during the midterms in the House of Representatives and will lose control of that chamber in early January.

Although they retain full control of Congress for now, Republicans still need support from Democrats to pass any bill in the Senate. Democrats have expressed opposition to giving Trump the money he wants to build his long-promised wall.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and have the Mexican government pay for it. But since his election, he has changed course, saying instead the money must come from Congress and U.S. taxpayers.

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House Republicans have agreed to the $5 billion Trump wants, but senators struck a bipartisan deal earlier this year to provide only $1.6 billion. It’s unclear how that difference will be bridged.

“My goal is to get the bills passed. And whatever we can do in a reasonable fashion, to get it done,” Shelby said. “I might personally like a bigger goal. But I use the word ‘doable.’ You’ve got to figure out what’s doable.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who also attended the meeting, told reporters: “We talked about border security and how to resolve all this, and we’re optimistic we have a way forward.” He declined to reveal what that might be.

The total cost of a wall along the 2,000-mile border is projected to exceed $20 billion, but Trump has signaled he wants at least $5 billion for work over the next year.

He initially threatened to shut down the government on Oct. 1 if Congress didn’t give him the money, but GOP leaders warned such a tactic would hurt them during the midterms. Trump relented under pressure, in part because he was promised that Republicans would work to secure the money in early December.

Funding for the Department of Homeland Security and a handful of other agencies runs out Dec. 7, and a partial shutdown would go into effect unless Congress and Trump act before then. Trump wants the new money for a wall to be packaged as part of these spending bills.

The bulk of the government, including the Pentagon, has already been funded through next September, but a partial shutdown would still lead to thousands of federal workers being sent home without pay and could cause challenges throughout the country.

In an interview Wednesday with the Daily Caller, Trump left open the possibility of forcing a shutdown if he doesn’t get what he wants.

“I’ll have to see how it plays out. But I may very well be willing to shut down the government,” Trump said. “I think it’s horrible what’s happening and, you know, building the wall, it’s in smaller stages, we can build it very quickly.”

Asked about those comments, Shelby said: “I think that’s probably in his mind . . . I think he’s said that before, that he would shut down, under different circumstances. What we want to do is avoid that. That’s our goal.”

There were two brief partial government shutdowns at the beginning of this year.

The talks come as House Republicans are facing their last gasp of power in Congress’ current lame-duck session, and the border wall remains a priority for many conservatives.

At a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday, a half-dozen rank-and-file lawmakers stood up to tell leadership that they needed to fund the wall before they fade into the minority, according to a GOP aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

“I don’t know how this is going to end,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), said Thursday, ahead of the White House meeting.

Cornyn added: “I think we ought to try to be a little bit more pragmatic about how much money can reasonably be spent to do what the president wants to do within the time period the appropriation is designed to cover.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said that it was time for Congress to “put up or shut up” on the wall. But he said getting the $5 billion will be “problematic.”

“That has to be sold, and the president’s going to have to be the one who sells it,” Hatch said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Thursday that he doesn’t anticipate Democrats agreeing to more than the $1.6 billion they’ve already signed off on for the 2019 fiscal year.

“I don’t see it. I think we’ve taken a position which is reasonable. We’ve given this administration more money than they can spend, and I don’t see it,” Durbin said. “If there are variables and things that are offered to us, of course we’ll consider them, but I think our position is pretty sound and understandable.”

Durbin, a longtime champion of permanent protections for immigrants brought illegally to the country as children, said he was not aware of talks to make a deal on those “dreamers” in exchange for money for Trump’s wall. Such deals have been attempted repeatedly under Trump’s presidency only to collapse in the end.

Cornyn and other Republicans say they are open to such a deal now, but it appears unlikely to come together in the short time lawmakers have ahead of the Dec. 7 deadline.

Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.