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Trump threatens again to shut down federal government over border-wall funding

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)

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — President Trump threatened Sunday to shut down the federal government this fall if Congress does not pass sweeping changes to immigration laws, including appropriating more public money to build his long-promised border wall.

“I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!” Trump tweeted. “Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!”

Trump’s shutdown warning — which he has made before — escalates the stakes ahead of a Sept. 30 government funding deadline, raising the possibility of a political showdown before the Nov. 6 midterm elections that Republican congressional leaders had hoped to avoid. A funding fight also could prove a distraction from Republican efforts in the Senate to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh by Oct. 1.

In El Paso, many say there is no immigration crisis. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Trump faced immediate words of caution from top Republicans, including Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee, which coordinates campaign efforts for GOP House candidates.

“I don’t think we’re going to shut down the government. You know, I think we’re going to make sure we keep the government open, but we’re going to get better policies on immigration,” Stivers said on ABC News’s “This Week.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that he supports the president’s effort to pass conservative immigration policies but disagreed with his brinkmanship.

“I don’t like playing shutdown politics. I don’t think it’d be helpful, so let’s try to avoid it,” Johnson said.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats did not feel compelled to respond to Trump’s threat.

“Democrats want to work together in a bipartisan way when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform,” Luján told ABC News, adding that “Democrats are standing strong when it comes to a comprehensive immigration reform conversation with the American people that is fair, that is tough.”

Trump’s declaration on Twitter surprised some lawmakers who have been eager to avoid a bruising and politically charged funding fight and highlighted his intense desire to make progress on signature agenda items that have stalled.

The president has not received from Congress as much funding as he has requested for his proposed wall along the Mexican border. Trump also has been advocating for a number of changes to immigration laws, including ending the visa lottery program as well as “catch and release” — the practice of releasing from detention immigrants caught entering the country illegally if they agree to court hearings.

Trump met Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and discussed the upcoming spending measure. The president signaled in the meeting that he was on board with McConnell and Ryan’s strategy to fund the government smoothly through “minibuses,” or smaller packages of spending bills that had been moving through the House and Senate, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

But in recent days, Trump has also spoken with several outside political allies who have urged him to strike a tougher line on the border wall as a means of pressuring Democrats and rallying his core voters in November, according to two people briefed on those discussions.

Trump has sought to make immigration a core campaign theme heading into the midterms. He has defended his administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, arguing that some parents who have been separated from their children under this policy are criminals.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted: “Please understand, there are consequences when people cross our Border illegally, whether they have children or not — and many are just using children for their own sinister purposes. Congress must act on fixing the DUMBEST & WORST immigration laws anywhere in the world! Vote ‘R.’ ”

It is unclear whether simply threatening to shut down the government could push Democrats to agree to fund construction of the wall, particularly because Trump has backed down at the last minute during previous standoffs.

Both last year and this year, Trump said he would shut down the government if Democrats didn’t agree to fund construction of the wall. Both times, Democrats refused, and both times, Trump agreed to sign spending bills that did not include funds for a new wall along the southern border.

Spending bills have appropriated funds to replace existing walls or barriers, something Trump has tried to promote to his supporters as signs of progress. The last spending bill funded $1.6 billion for border barriers, but that money does not apply to new construction.

There was a brief government shutdown in January after Senate Democrats refused to back a spending package because of Trump’s move to potentially force the deportation of immigrants who had been brought to the United States illegally as children. But Democratic solidarity over the matter did not last long. They backed down quickly.

While congressional GOP leaders have worked over the past week to highlight solidarity with Trump, broadly, on immigration, they also struck notes of caution about the timing of any significant legislative progress.

McConnell said Friday that talks over funding the wall would “probably” have to wait until after the midterms. “Probably, and that’s something we do have a disagreement on,” he said in an interview with a Kentucky radio station, referring to the timing of action on Capitol Hill.

Ryan said Thursday that he believed Trump is “willing to be patient to make sure that we get what we need so we can get that done.” The House speaker added that the proposed border wall would eventually be built, calling it “not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

Congress reached an agreement in March to fund government operations through the end of September, and it must pass new legislation by then or the government will partially shut down Oct. 1, just five weeks before the midterm elections.

The White House’s demands for border funding have ranged widely, from around $2 billion to $25 billion, since Trump’s inauguration.

House Republicans are trying to appropriate $5 billion to begin construction of the wall, a figure Trump has endorsed. Some Senate Democrats have shown a willingness to partially fund construction of the wall in exchange for other immigration policy changes, but those talks have repeatedly broken down.

During the presidential campaign, Trump frequently promised that Mexico would pay for construction of the wall, but the Mexican government has refused to do so. This has led Trump to demand that U.S. taxpayers fund construction of the wall, claiming he would recoup the money from Mexico through other means.

Democrats believe they will make significant gains in the midterms, and any gains could make it more difficult for Trump to secure money for the construction of the wall. Trump’s shutdown threat could be his last ploy to secure border-wall funding before the midterms.

Trump has embraced a big-spending approach to government since taking office, allowing Democrats to secure funding for numerous priorities in order for him to win a bigger military budget. This had helped dramatically expand the budget deficit, leading to complaints from conservatives.

Trump said in March when he signed the last spending bill that he would not allow this to happen again, but Republicans have such a slim majority in the Senate that it makes it impossible to pass spending bills without any support from Democrats.

Costa and Paletta reported from Washington. Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.