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Trump pulls back threat to shut down government over border wall — for now

President Trump threatened to shut down the government over building his promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Brandon/The Washington Post)

The White House has signaled to congressional Republicans that it will not shut down the government in October if money isn’t appropriated to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, potentially clearing a path for lawmakers to reach a short-term budget deal.

Congress has only appropriated money to fund government operations through the end of September, and President Trump has threatened to shut down the government if lawmakers don’t include $1.6 billion in new funding so that 74 new miles of wall and secondary fencing can be added to the border.

“Build that wall,” Trump said at the Aug. 22 rally in Phoenix. “Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it. But believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall.”

But two days later, White House officials quietly notified Congress that the $1.6 billion would not need to be in a “continuing resolution” that was meant to fund government operations from October until sometime in early December, a senior GOP congressional aide said.

White House officials have signaled to lawmakers, however, that the wall’s eventual construction remains a top priority for Trump. He wants this funding to be included in the December budget bill, GOP congressional aides said.

Trump could still follow through on a threat to shut down the government in December, but this marks the second time he has pulled back from the wall demand to allow lawmakers to pass a budget bill. The first time came in May, when lawmakers voted to authorize government funding through September and refrained from including money that would allow for the construction of a new wall. That law, however, did allow the U.S. government to replace existing border wall with a new barrier where necessary.

Trump has been threatening to shut down the government for months. In May, he said in another tweet that the government needed a “good shutdown” to break the gridlock in Congress.

Trump and White House  budget director Mick Mulvaney have stressed repeatedly to Congress that the wall money must be appropriated, and the House of Representatives approved a bill in late July that would fund the government and included $1.6 billion for the wall construction. But the Senate refused to take up that bill, in part because Senate GOP leaders knew Democrats would not support it and they needed support from Democrats to bring a new spending measure up for a vote.

There were other worries.

Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling by Sept. 29 or, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has warned, there might not be enough flexibility to pay all of the government's bill. Because those deadlines were so close, Mnuchin and other White House officials did not want a fight over the budget to become entangled with a measure to raise the debt ceiling.

Even some of the White House's most ardent supporters in Congress agreed that now was not the time to risk a government shutdown over the wall money.

"Obviously I'm supportive of the wall and putting the wall funding in [the government funding bill], but from a pragmatic standpoint, even if we pass a [bill] that has the wall funding in there, it will get stripped out in the Senate," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R - N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, which represents the chamber's most conservative members.

Meadows said he would vote for a spending bill that included funding for the wall "but you can't be intellectually honest and believe that this fight is going to happen in September."

Now, congressional leaders plan to introduce a bill that would essentially finance government operations at existing levels from Oct. 1 into some time in December. Such a bill would require support from Senate Democrats to pass, and many Democrats oppose construction of the border wall.

That’s one reason many Republicans in Congress have told Trump to focus on other parts of his agenda and postpone having a fight about constructing the border wall for now.

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and David Nakamura explain why President Trump still pledges to build a wall on the U.S. southern border. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If Trump decided to veto a funding bill passed by Congress, it would lead to a partial government shutdown. National parks would close, and many government agencies would send employees home without pay, causing delays at Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service, and at numerous other agencies. The last time there was a government shutdown was in 2013.

Building a wall along the Mexico border was one of Trump’s biggest promises during his campaign, often thrilling his supporters at rallies with chants of “Build That Wall.” A key part of the promise, however, was that Mexico would pay for the wall’s construction. Mexican officials have refused to play any part of paying for the wall, leading Trump to insist that the money first come from the U.S. Congress so that construction can begin.

-- Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.