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Trump backs off demand for $5 billion for border wall, but budget impasse remains ahead of shutdown deadline

Without providing specifics, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Dec. 18 said a new trade agreement with Mexico would help pay for a wall. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump on Tuesday abandoned months of strident demands for Congress to give him $5 billion for his border wall, bowing to political reality as Republicans scrambled to avoid shutting down large portions of the government this weekend.

It was a stunning turnaround from one week ago, when Trump told Democratic congressional leaders during a bizarre on-camera sparring match that he’d be “proud” to shut down the government to get his wall money. Instead, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday, Trump does not want a shutdown and will identify “other ways” to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the president’s concession, which came after lawmakers from both parties argued that his $5 billion wall plan wouldn’t get through Congress, did not break the impasse that’s overtaken Capitol Hill in the final days of unified GOP control of Washington.

Trump fired off a bunch of faulty claims about the border wall. Schumer called him out for his Bottomless Pinocchio. All in one oval office meeting. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Democrats rejected a Republican spending offer made shortly after Trump’s retreat on the wall, and Congress appeared headed toward the lowest-common-denominator solution: a short-term funding extension that would keep the government open for a period of weeks and then hand Democrats the responsibility of passing a more lasting fix once they retake the House majority in January.

“That’s probably the likeliest path at this point. It’s disappointing,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said after emerging from a closed-door Senate GOP lunch. “We’re very close to being able to finish out the budget process, the appropriations process around here.”

Trump faces large barrier as he seeks money for border wall

A short-term funding extension, called a “continuing resolution,” would become the only option for keeping the government open past a Friday midnight deadline if lawmakers and Trump can’t agree on a broader deal. By late Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee had begun drafting a short-term bill that would carry government funding into February, said the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.).

But it was uncertain whether the president would sign such a measure, and the overall outcome was impossible to predict given Trump’s tendency to swiftly embrace new demands and discard old ones.

The White House did not send a clear signal Wednesday morning about where things are headed. In a tweet, Trump said: “One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!”

During a television appearance shortly afterward, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump was not backing down but wants to see what Congress presents him.

“The president has said he’s willing to do what he has to do to get that border security, including a government shutdown,” Conway said. “Now we’ll see what the Senate and the House, what they come together and present to the president. We don’t know what’s going to make it to his desk.”

She later told reporters at the White House that Trump would look at the possibility of signing a continuing resolution that funds government into February.

Trump’s wall ultimatum had been holding up spending bills for the Department of Homeland Security and numerous other agencies making up about 25 percent of the federal government, all of which will begin to shut down and furlough hundreds of thousands of workers without pay if Congress and Trump don’t act before the deadline.

That’s a scenario congressional Republicans are determined to avoid as their last act after two years of unified control of Washington. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) flatly told reporters Tuesday that there would not be a shutdown.

“The American people don’t like it,” McConnell said. “You remember my favorite country saying: There’s no education in the second kick of a mule. We’ve been down this path before, and I don’t believe we’ll go down this path again.”

A partial government shutdown would be the third this year, after Congress’s terminal budget dysfunction forced two brief shutdowns in January and February before lawmakers managed to get their spending bills back on track. But that effort was derailed again in recent fighting over the border, as Trump demanded taxpayer funds for a wall he had long claimed Mexico would pay for.

The short-term approach emerged as the likeliest fallback Tuesday afternoon after hours of fast-paced maneuvering, starting with a morning appearance by Sanders on Fox News. Sanders said the White House wanted to avoid a shutdown and was exploring other ways to obtain $5 billion for the wall, rather than getting it from Congress.

Soon thereafter, Senate GOP leaders summoned their Democratic counterparts to a meeting in McConnell’s office, where they made an offer: $1.6 billion for border security — a figure already agreed to on a bipartisan basis in the Senate — plus an additional $1 billion in unspent and reallocated money that could go to fund other Trump immigration priorities, but not a wall.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took the offer to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Democrats rejected it almost immediately, calling the $1 billion a “slush fund” that would be spent on immigration policies they oppose.

“Leader Schumer and I have said that we cannot support the offer they made of a billion-dollar slush fund for the president to implement his very wrong immigration policies,” Pelosi told reporters. “So, that won’t happen.”

Additionally, the $1.6 billion the Senate agreed on earlier this year is now too high for Democrats, especially liberals who are about to be part of the majority in the House and will accept no more than $1.3 billion for fencing.

That sent lawmakers and the White House “back to square one,” said Shelby.

“I was disappointed in the response,” Shelby said, calling the GOP proposal a reasonable offer. And now, he said, “I’m sure there’ll be proposals back and forth, but you know, it’s not long until midnight Friday.”

At the White House shortly thereafter, Trump was asked at an event on school safety about avoiding a shutdown.

“We’ll see what happens. It’s too early to say,” he said. He sidestepped a question on whether he was still willing to shut down the government to get $5 billion for the wall, saying only, “We need border security.”

But Republican lawmakers who’d begun to fear that Trump’s wall demands could precipitate a government shutdown — something they’re determined to avoid — were plainly relieved to see the president back away and welcomed greater flexibility from the administration.

“It makes me feel great, because first of all, the acknowledgment or at least the intent to not shut down is enormously helpful, especially after last week,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I think the general sense is that this is probably a loosening of the hardened positions.”

At the same time, GOP lawmakers remained uncertain, as they have been for days, about what exactly Trump will accept. The White House has signaled opposition to a short-term spending bill, and senators said that while they hoped Trump would sign one if it came to that, they couldn’t say for sure.

But the White House put the onus on the Senate.

“You know, at this point, the Senate has thrown out a lot of ideas. We’re disappointed in the fact that they’ve yet to actually vote on something and pass something,” Sanders said at a White House briefing. “So when they do that, we’ll make a determination on whether or not we’re going to sign that.”

Tuesday’s developments came after failed efforts by the White House and Republicans in recent days to try to get Democrats to sign onto $5 billion to pay for the construction of Trump’s long-promised wall.

While meeting with Schumer and Pelosi last week, Trump said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over the issue, a statement that congressional Republicans openly said muddied their messaging that Democrats should be blamed for a shutdown.

With Democrats near-unanimously opposing Trump’s demand for $5 billion, Republicans lacked a path to pass the funding because they could not assemble the 60 Senate votes needed to advance a homeland security spending bill.

House and Senate Republicans have been in talks with the White House in recent days looking at other ways to try to secure funding outside the traditional appropriations process. They have considered redirecting already approved money, among other things, according to a person briefed on the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations.

Trump has threatened to shut down the entire border if Democrats do not agree to give him $5 billion, a threat that did not appear to force their capitulation.

Monday evening, Shelby said he was expecting a proposal from the White House, perhaps at 5 p.m., that never materialized. But the White House never promised a 5 p.m. proposal, and then Senate Republicans signaled that they planned to move ahead on an overhaul of the criminal justice system this week, giving them very little time to negotiate a budget bill.

Meanwhile, the stock market has fallen precipitously in recent weeks, creating economic angst over Trump’s agenda. The president has attacked the Federal Reserve, among others, for the market’s tumble, but the slipping stocks have rattled him, according to people who have spoken with him both inside and outside the White House.

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the internal White House sentiment.

Congressional Republicans promised Trump several months ago that if he would delay a fight over the border wall until after the midterm elections, they would help him obtain the money in December. But those efforts never materialized, and the president was under heavy pressure to avoid a partial government shutdown just a few days before Christmas.

“The advice he’s getting is to not do this, to just sign the bill, get this over with, and get into 2019 and then have this fight,” said Steve Moore, who was an adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign.

John Wagner, Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.