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‘Very possible’ shutdown could last into new year, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney says

Trump administration officials and senators from both parties on Dec. 23 discussed the government shutdown and how a deal can be made. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The partial shutdown paralyzing large portions of the federal government may last into January when Democrats retake control of the House, the White House acknowledged Sunday, as negotiations over funding for President Trump’s border wall sputtered to a near-standstill and congressional leaders abandoned Washington for Christmas.

“It’s very possible that this shutdown will go beyond the 28th and into the new Congress,” White House budget director and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Sunday, referencing Jan. 3, when the new Congress convenes. “I think it’s a really good question here as to whether or not this deal can be cut before the new Congress comes in.”

Mulvaney spoke as the shutdown of about 25 percent of the federal government entered its second full day. The breakdown, coming in the final days of the GOP’s unified control over government, stems from an intractable gulf between Trump’s demand to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and congressional Democrats’ refusal to authorize wall funding.

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)

Mulvaney put the onus on Democrats, saying the White House is now offering to open the government for less than the $5 billion in wall funding Trump had demanded. Democrats say the wall is immoral and would be ineffective, and they are instead offering to keep the border-security funding at the current $1.3 billion, with money going to fencing and other security measures, but not for a wall.

“We moved off of the 5. We hope they move up from their 1.3,” Mulvaney said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

Mulvaney refused to offer specifics, but a Democratic aide said the White House offer was for $2.1 billion for border security, including new fencing, plus an additional $400 million fund for other Trump immigration priorities.

The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. A spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request to confirm the details of the offer.

The scene in Washington during the partial government shutdown

Jan. 26, 2019 | The Dipp family, from left, Benjamin, 2, Emma, 6, Dennis, Linda Marie, 4 and Christina, of Falls Church, Va., were hoping to visit the National Museum of the American Indian but found it closed. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The offer left the two sides without agreement. Democrats have criticized funding structures such as the $400 million for broad use as “slush funds” and noted that Trump repeatedly promised during his campaign that the wall would be paid for by Mexico.

“If Director Mulvaney says the Trump Shutdown will last into the New Year, believe him — because it’s their shutdown,” Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader, said in a statement when asked about the offer.

Mulvaney and Vice President Pence met with congressional leaders Saturday in the Capitol, but the negotiations failed to break the impasse and House and Senate members were sent home until Thursday. There was scant evidence Sunday of any forward movement: Various congressional leaders were spotted in their home states or boarding flights amid the Christmas holiday rush.

Despite near-unanimous opposition to the wall, Democrats have said they are willing to negotiate on funding for other border-security measures. And the administration’s recent shift in focus from a concrete wall to a fence-like barrier made of steel slats offered a slight glimmer of hope for room to compromise.

“If you ask the experts, even in the administration, they will tell you that technology and personnel, those are the things that are needed desperately and quickly,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The president ought to be sitting down with us and making this border more secure by making investments. He’ll have Democrats onboard,” Durbin said.

Both sides dug in Sunday, appealing to partisan supporters who have urged their elected officials not to compromise.

Shortly before the shutdown began, the Senate agreed to a bipartisan deal that would keep the government open through Feb. 8 but deny Trump any new wall money, keeping the Department of Homeland Security’s border-security funding at the current level of $1.3 billion.

Lawmakers were initially hopeful Trump would take that deal, especially after he suggested that the military could still build the wall. However, the military strategy faced high legal hurdles, and after backlash by some of Congress’s most conservative members and typically Trump-friendly media outlets and pundits, the president rejected the deal and resumed his demand for $5 billion in wall funding, which Democrats rejected outright.

“There is frankly no path towards him getting $5 billion in American taxpayer money to meet his campaign promise of a big, beautiful wall with Mexico,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.

Mulvaney acknowledged that Trump’s approach to the presidency played a role in shuttering federal agencies and sending workers home on furlough just before Christmas.

“This is what Washington looks like when you have a president who refuses to sort of go along to get along,” Mulvaney said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House speaker nominee, has already said she intends to pass a spending bill to reopen the government as soon as she takes control of the House majority. Pelosi says the wall is “immoral,” and Mulvaney on Sunday claimed she bore some responsibility for the impasse because of the political demands of her campaign for speaker.

“I think she’s now in that unfortunate position of being beholden to her left wing, to where she cannot be seen as agreeing with the president on anything until after she’s speaker,” Mulvaney said. “If that’s the case, again, I think there’s a chance we go into the new Congress.”

Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, disputed Mulvaney’s assessment.

“As Mr. Mulvaney well knows, House Democrats are united in their opposition to the President’s immoral, expensive and ineffective wall,” Hammill said on Twitter. “The sooner the White House recognizes the need to stop the posturing and start serious bipartisan talks, the sooner we can end the #TrumpShutdown.”

At the same time, Mulvaney and other Republicans played down the impacts of the shutdown, noting the federal government is effectively closed until Wednesday anyway because of the Christmas holiday. Mulvaney said paychecks will go out on Dec. 28, the next federal pay period. “I want everybody to understand no one is working without getting paid,” Mulvaney said.

The next pay period affected is Jan. 11.

Some 400,000 federal workers are expected to be furloughed under the shutdown that affects about 25 percent of the government that Congress funds — including the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Interior, Agriculture and Housing, among others.

The rest of the government — including the Pentagon — has already been funded through September under spending bills Congress passed earlier in the year and the president signed.

The government went into brief partial shutdowns in January and February, making this the third partial government shutdown of 2018.

Democrats have excoriated Republicans for ending their stewardship of Washington with a partial government shutdown. However, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) dismissed it as “really much ado about very little.”

“We have a very small sliver of the government that’s unresolved and is in this shutdown mode. It’s a very, very small amount. Everyone’s going to get paid. I think it probably gets resolved quickly,” Toomey said on “Meet the Press.” “And it’s completely taking away focus where it should be, on a very, very strong economy and some really good economic news, generally.”

Other Republicans expressed less patience with a shutdown.

The partial shutdown “is disruptive, harmful, wasteful and could leave hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors without paychecks over Christmas,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “The votes are clearly not present in the Senate to provide $5 billion for the border wall. . . . We have to accept those realities and reopen the government as soon as possible.”

When ABC’s Jonathan Karl reminded Mulvaney of Trump’s campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall, Mulvaney said the technical process cannot work so easily. He tried to argue that the renegotiated trade deal among the United States, Mexico and Canada could generate revenue to the U.S. Treasury.

“You could make an argument Mexico is paying for it in that fashion,” Mulvaney said, without offering specifics. He added, “We really think we’re in a good place in terms of getting the wall built and also getting Mexico to participate in our border security.”

There is no mechanism for direct payments from Mexico’s government to the U.S. government for a wall in the trade agreement. And a number of Republicans have been greatly frustrated by Trump’s intransigence, which also played a role in scuttling attempts at broader immigration deals earlier this year.

“Not long ago, the president could have received $25 billion in border security just by dealing with the Dreamers,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “This is a made-up fight, so the president can look like he’s fighting, but even if he wins, our borders are going to be insecure.”

Corker is in the final days of his term, and in January, he will be replaced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who ran as a loyal supporter of the president.

Trump on Sunday continued his public press for the wall, writing on Twitter that a “Wall or Barrier” is the only effective way to stop undocumented immigration — a claim many border experts have contested.

“Drones and all of the rest are wonderful and lots of fun, but it is only a good old fashioned Wall that works!” he wrote.

Mulvaney was asked on Fox to account for comments he made as a House member in 2015 in an interview on WRHI radio in South Carolina, which were unearthed this weekend by CNN.

At the time, Mulvaney said: “The fence doesn’t solve the problem. Is it necessary to have one? Sure. Would it help? Sure. But to just say, ‘Build the darn fence,’ and have that be the end of an immigration discussion is absurd and almost childish for someone running for president to take that simplistic a view.”

Asked about those comments, Mulvaney said, “A border wall is absolutely necessary, which is why we’re having the battle. So, too, by the way, are changing our policies on immigration.” He said the Trump administration had a recent success in the latter regard by persuading Mexico to allow people seeking asylum in the United States to stay in Mexico while they do so.

Around midday Sunday, as if to illustrate the lack of activity, No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn (Tex.) tweeted several photos of birds and turtles relaxing on logs, with a one-word caption: “Chillin’.”