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Trump and his aides take hard line on border wall, as threat of government shutdown looms

Administration officials and lawmakers discuss funding for a border wall as the deadline for passing a government funding bill approaches. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

President Trump and his top aides applied new pressure Sunday on lawmakers to include money for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in a must-pass government funding bill, raising the possibility of a federal government shutdown this week.

In a pair of tweets, Trump attacked Democrats for opposing the wall and insisted that Mexico would pay for it “at a later date,” despite his repeated campaign promises not including that qualifier. And top administration officials appeared on Sunday morning news shows to press for wall funding, including White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who said Trump might refuse to sign a spending bill that does not include any.

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Democrats said they vigorously oppose any money for the border wall in a new spending bill, setting the stage for a last-minute showdown as the White House and lawmakers scramble to pass a stopgap bill to fund the government beyond the end of Friday, when funding will run out.

Trump’s position could also put him at odds with Republican congressional leaders, some of whom have voiced skepticism about including wall funding in the most immediate spending bill. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) made clear to rank-and-file GOP lawmakers on Saturday that his top priority was to pass a bill to keep government open.

“The Democrats don’t want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning. In a subsequent tweet, he wrote: “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.”

On “Fox News Sunday,” host Chris Wallace asked Mulvaney, “Will he [Trump] sign a government funding bill that does not include funding for the border wall?”

“Yeah, and I think you saw his answer just in your little lead-in, which is: We don’t know yet,” Mulvaney said in the interview. He was referring to comments Trump recently made to the Associated Press.

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In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus appeared to take a slightly less rigid approach to getting money for the border wall, repeatedly talking more generally about the need for “border security.” Still, he mentioned the wall in the context of the president’s goals.

“I think that as long as the president’s priorities are adequately reflected … and there’s enough as far as flexibility for the border wall and border security, I think we’ll be okay with that,” he said.

Democrats took a hard stance against the wall.

“The wall is, in my view, immoral, expensive, unwise, and when the president says, ‘Well, I promised a wall during my campaign,’ I don’t think he said he was going to pass billions of dollars of cost of the wall on to the taxpayer,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on “Meet the Press.”

Trump campaigned heavily on the promise of building a wall, which he said would curb illegal immigration and the flow of drugs into the United States. Mexico’s president has said his country will not pay for the wall.

“I don’t think anybody is trying to get to a shutdown,” Mulvaney said. “A shutdown is not a desired end. It’s not a tool. It’s not something we want to have. We want our priorities funded. And one of the biggest priorities during the campaign was border security — keeping Americans safe. And part of that was a border wall.”

Asked recently by the Associated Press whether he would sign a bill without border funding, Trump replied: “I don’t know yet. People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall. My base really wants it.”

With less than a week to pass a new spending bill, negotiations between the White House, Republicans and Democrats are ramping up to avoid a government shutdown (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Washington Post)

Trump administration officials have steadily advocated for funding the wall in recent days.

“I think it goes without saying that the president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for a border wall,” Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” that aired Sunday. “So I would suspect, he’ll do the right thing for sure, but I would suspect he will be insistent on the funding.”

Mulvaney has said that the administration is willing to negotiate with Democrats — funding insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in exchange for support for wall funding.

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But Democratic leaders say they are not open to that.

“The White House gambit to hold hostage health care for millions of Americans, in order to force American taxpayers to foot the bill for a wall that the President said would be paid for by Mexico is a complete non-starter,” Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said in a statement Friday. House said Sunday that statement still stands.

“ObamaCare is in serious trouble. The Dems need big money to keep it going — otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought,” Trump tweeted Sunday. It was unclear whether his tweet was meant to bolster Mulvaney’s negotiating position.

Republicans hold a 52-to-48 advantage over the Democratic caucus in the Senate. But Senate rules protecting the minority give Democrats some leverage. Senate Republicans must get 60 votes to pass legislation, meaning it is impossible to do so without some Democratic support.

Further complicating matters for the White House, some Republicans in Congress say they don’t view wall funding as a must-have item in a short term spending bill.

“We’re just trying to finish out the current cycle, the current budget year,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” “And so I think that’s a fight worth having and a conversation and a debate worth having for 2018. And if we can do some of that now, that would be great. But we cannot shut down the government right now.”

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The spending showdown comes as Congress prepares to return from a two-week recess with a busy to-do list. Trump and some other Republicans have been pressing to revive work on health-care legislation, which stalled last month because Republicans could not agree on a strategy for repealing and replacing the ACA.

On Sunday, Republicans from Congress and the administration sounded less than confident lawmakers would pass a revamped health-care bill this week.

“Health care may happen next week. It may not. We’re hopeful it will,” said Priebus.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration plans to release a very general sketch of its tax reform plan this week, Mulvaney said.

“I think what are you going to see Wednesday is some specific governing principles, some guidance,” he said, explaining that the White House will not release specific legislative text. “Also some indications of what the rates are going to be.”

Asked whether the plan will be revenue-neutral, Mulvaney replied, “I don’t think we’ve decided that part yet.”

Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.