Trump administration officials began taking extraordinary steps to contain the fallout from the partial federal government shutdown Sunday, as the budget impasse between the president and congressional Democrats showed no signs of nearing a breakthrough.
As agencies sought to deal with cascading problems across the federal bureaucracy, acting White House budget director Russell T. Vought sent congressional leaders a letter detailing the administration’s latest offer to end the shutdown. It demanded $5.7 billion “for construction of a steel barrier for the Southwest border” but also proposed “an additional $800 million to address urgent humanitarian needs” and unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border.
The administration has also signaled it would be willing to restore some version of an Obama-era program that allowed children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to apply for refugee resettlement in the United States, according to an official with knowledge of the proposal.
But a border wall is “central to any strategy,” Vought wrote, and Democrats — who have said the wall should not be tied to an agreement to reopen the government — remained skeptical of any overtures by the president, suggesting that there is no end in sight to the shutdown, which has entered its third week.
A Democratic official familiar with the meeting said no progress was made over the weekend, in large part because the White House hasn’t been forthcoming about how the money would be used or why the request is for so much more than the administration sought only a few months ago.
The posturing came as the shutdown’s impacts mounted, with the Trump administration scrambling to mitigate its effects on Americans expecting to get a tax refund next month, those who rely on federal assistance for their housing, and vulnerable national monuments and parks.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development sent letters to 1,500 landlords Friday as part of a last-minute effort to prevent the eviction of thousands of tenants. A lot of those tenants live in units covered by a HUD program that many agency officials didn’t realize had expired on Jan. 1 and that they are now unable to renew.
The letters instruct the landlords to use their reserve accounts so that no one is evicted, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said. He said the budget and contract staff are “scouring for money” to figure out how to fund the contracts on an interim basis.
Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service officials are trying to determine whether they will be able to pay tax refunds next month, despite the fact that they said last year they would be prohibited from doing so in the event of a government shutdown.
And the National Park Service, under pressure because of deteriorating conditions at some of its most popular parks, authorized tapping entrance fees to pay for trash pickup and other operations that have halted as a result of the shutdown — a move some critics said may be illegal.
Under a memorandum signed Saturday by the Interior Department’s acting secretary, David Bernhardt, and obtained by The Washington Post, park managers will be permitted to bring on additional staff to clean restrooms, haul trash, patrol the parks and open areas that have been shut because of the budget standoff.
In a statement Sunday, National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith acknowledged that the administration’s practice of keeping understaffed parks open now threatens to degrade some of its most beloved sites.
“As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” Smith said. “We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”
At least seven people have died at national park sites since the shutdown began, including a man at Yosemite National Park who illegally brought his dog on a trail and subsequently fell. At Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, the buildup of human waste became so severe that officials closed the park because of public health concerns. At Joshua Tree National Park, authorities shut campgrounds after determining that illegal off-road driving had damaged the park’s resources.
Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said in an email that drawing from visitors’ fees would drain money that was supposed to be spent on addressing the parks’ massive maintenance backlog.
“For those national parks that don’t collect fees, they will now be in the position of competing for the same inadequate pot of money to protect their resources and visitors,” Pierno said. “Draining accounts dry is not the answer.”
Congressional Democrats and some park advocates question whether the park-fee move is legal because the fees that parks collect under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are expressly designated to support visitor services instead of operations and basic maintenance.
“The Department of Interior is very likely violating appropriations law,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said in a phone interview Sunday. “I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law.”
In a sign of the acrimonious tenor of talks to reopen the government, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blamed President Trump for the continued impasse and sharply criticized him for repeating that he is considering declaring a national emergency to build the border wall, a campaign promise.
“The impression you get from the president [is] that he would like to not only close government, build a wall, but also abolish Congress so the only voice that mattered was his own,” Pelosi said in an interview, which aired on CBS News’s “Sunday Morning.”
Despite the pessimistic tone from Democrats, senior administration officials described the letter to congressional Democrats as a flicker of progress. They said the letter’s formal call for a “steel barrier” rather than a massive concrete wall — as Trump long promised — was a notable development.
More significant, they said, was the request for funds “to address urgent humanitarian needs” and unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border — an issue they said Democrats have made a priority during the talks.
“During our meetings with congressional staff this weekend, we made it clear that we have a crisis on our southern border, and we outlined the president’s plan to secure our border, build a wall, and protect the American people,” Vice President Pence said in an interview. “It’s time for the Democrats to start negotiating.”
The administration’s proposal comes after an unprecedented surge in the number of migrant families crossing the border.
In recent months, so many Central American parents have arrived with children that Border Patrol stations have become dangerously overcrowded and unhealthy. Two Guatemalan children died in December after being taken into custody by U.S. agents.
Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made a presentation on the issue over the weekend, officials said.
The $800 million is intended to alleviate what Homeland Security officials characterize as a “humanitarian crisis” by setting up temporary facilities where families would have better access to doctors and food in a more comfortable setting than the cement-floor holding cells of border stations where they are now held.
Nielsen and Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, have pushed hard to include the $800 million, according to an official with knowledge of the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They went to bat for this,” the official said, viewing the proposal as a significant concession to Democratic demands for better treatment of migrants.
Immigration hard-liners have been loath to spend significant funds to accommodate the family surge by improving detention conditions, and such temporary facilities would probably be derided as “welcome centers” at a time when record numbers of migrants are bringing children with them. As a result of court rulings that limit the amount of time minors can be held in detention, a parent who brings a child has a far better chance of avoiding a prolonged detention and deportation.
Instead, with more than 2,000 migrants crossing the border each day, U.S. immigration authorities have resorted to mass releases because they cannot transport and process the families fast enough and so many children are falling ill in government custody.
The partial shutdown over wall funding — leaving U.S. border agents working long hours without pay — has only added to the strain.
Administration officials are also looking to see what is legally permissible as they determine how to grapple with the 38 million Americans who could lose access to food assistance next month because the Agriculture Department is also caught up in the shutdown. As soon as this week, the agency could begin notifying states that it might not be able to provide the expected levels of financial assistance for food programs.
State officials are trying to compensate for the shortfall when it comes to welfare and food stamp recipients, but Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Governors Association, said in an interview that at some point, state flexibility will run out.
“For every day that goes on, it becomes increasingly problematic for states,” Pattison said. “They are having to front money for federal programs. They can’t run deficits like the federal government. They’re on tight budgets, and it’s not like they have a lot of money lying around.”
Felicia Sonmez, Tracy Jan and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.