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Senate passes bill to keep government open until February, undercutting Trump’s drive for border wall funding

The Senate approved funding to keep the government open on Dec. 19, but without funds allocated for President Trump's border wall. (Video: Reuters)

The GOP-controlled Congress on Wednesday severely undermined President Trump’s drive for a border wall, embracing a short-term spending bill that would keep the government open but deny any new money for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The agreement announced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would fund the federal government through Feb. 8, averting a partial shutdown scheduled to take effect at the end of Friday absent action by Congress and Trump.

But the spending bill would not include any of the $5 billion Trump is demanding for his wall, and it would punt the next round of border wall decisions into the new year, when a new Democratic majority in the House will have the power to stop wall funding from going through Congress.

Without Congress, Trump’s only remaining options for fulfilling his wall promise would rely on a series of legally dubious strategies that face opposition from newly empowered Democrats at every turn.

The Senate passed the legislation by voice vote late Wednesday, and the House was expected to take it up on Thursday. Congressional leaders said they expected Trump to sign it before the shutdown deadline.

But the mercurial president — who just a week ago declared he would be “proud” to shut down the government over the wall funding — did not publicly announce his support for the deal, throwing the outcome into question as Trump’s conservative allies on and off Capitol Hill mounted a furious lobbying campaign to convince the president to reject the deal.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus who talks regularly with Trump, predicted “major damage” to the president politically if he signs the funding bill and said “the base will just go crazy” over Trump’s failure to deliver on his border wall promises. “I just think that the vast majority of the Trump voters believe that he campaigned on building the wall,” Meadows said, urging the president to veto the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Dec. 19 that both Republicans and Democrats have struck a short-term spending deal. (Video: C-SPAN)

Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus took turns speaking on the House floor Wednesday evening to rail against the deal. Conservative outlets, including Breitbart and the Drudge Report, also attacked the deal, accusing Trump of caving on the core promise of his campaign.

Trump continued to insist Wednesday that the wall would be built even without congressional involvement, writing on Twitter that the military would build the barrier. He added: “One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!”

But the legality of that approach is questionable, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats would never allow it to happen.

Trump promised during his campaign for the presidency that Mexico would pay for the wall. Now, with Mexico’s government having paid nothing and the president asking taxpayers for $5 billion, he says Mexico is paying for it indirectly via a renegotiated North America free trade deal. Congress has yet to approve the trade pact, and it’s not clear how it would result in Mexico paying for the wall.

Despite Trump’s insistence on building the border wall, many congressional Republicans never viewed the plan as realistic, and some never fully supported it. The president’s best chance to get major funding for the wall came and went a year ago, when negotiations with Democrats involving citizenship for some undocumented immigrants in exchange for wall funds fell apart amid acrimony.

Since then, Trump has periodically demanded wall funding and threatened to shut down the government to get it — a fight GOP leaders ultimately persuaded him to put off until after the midterm elections. But there were never the votes in the narrowly divided Senate for Trump and Republicans to win the fight once the moment arrived, a reality that McConnell and GOP leaders acknowledged Wednesday after Democrats rejected a final offer to spend $1.6 billion on border security and an additional $1 billion on other immigration priorities apart from the wall.

“Faced with this intransigence — with Democrats’ failure to take our borders seriously — Republicans will continue to fulfill our duty to govern,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “That’s why we will soon take up a simple measure that will continue government funding into February: so we can continue this vital debate after the new Congress has convened.”

Schumer, speaking on the floor shortly thereafter, said: “I’m glad the leader thinks the government should not shut down over the president’s demands for a wall, and Democrats will support this CR.” CR stands for “continuing resolution,” a short-term measure that extends government funding at existing levels.

Not long after that, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that House Democrats, too, would support the measure, boosting its chances of passing the House even if conservative Republicans defect.

In a sign that the outcome in the House was not entirely assured, though, McConnell announced after Wednesday night’s vote that the Senate would be back in session Thursday: “We have to see what the House does with what we just sent them.”

And having learned to never predict precisely what Trump will do, McConnell gave a guarded response when asked after meeting with Vice President Mike Pence whether the president would sign the legislation and keep the government open. “Hope so,” he said.

Congressional Republicans argued that they, and Trump, had little choice but to back down on the wall.

“Ultimately, we don’t have the votes to pass it. The Democrats in the Senate won’t support it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “I’m not retreating, I want us to do it. But ultimately in this republic and according to the rules of the Senate, you need 60 votes to do it.

Rubio said that left “two choices”: “And that is the choice between shutting down the government or sticking to your guns on an issue. And I have yet — I’ve only been here seven years, I guess — but I have yet to see anyone win a shutdown.”

Some in the GOP were downcast Wednesday at the prospect of ending two years of unified Republican control of Washington with a short-term spending bill that accomplishes the bare minimum on Congress’s most fundamental responsibility — funding the federal government. After two brief government shutdowns early in the year, Congress had shaken off its budget dysfunction and made progress advancing a series of must-pass spending bills, but that ground to a halt in recent months amid the standoff over the wall.

“I think we ought to stay here and fight it out and get border security done,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “It’s irresponsible, that at the end of our first quarter we can’t fund the government. This is 25 percent of the discretionary budget.”

Congress earlier this year funded most of the federal government, including the Pentagon, through next September. But the Homeland Security Department, which is responsible for border security, and the Justice, Interior, Housing, State and Agriculture departments have been operating on a short-term spending bill that expires at midnight Friday.

If that were to happen, hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be sent home without pay just before Christmas. Others who are deemed essential, such as Border Patrol agents, would be forced to work but would not get paid until after the shutdown was resolved.

At the same time, passage of a year-end “continuing resolution” would leave a number of congressional priorities undone, since GOP leaders want to keep the legislation free of the numerous extraneous issues that can get attached to must-pass spending bills.

One of these, related to a list of about 120 lands bills important to a bipartisan group of Western senators, emerged as a last-minute snag Wednesday afternoon that held up swift Senate passage of the spending bill, as lawmakers maneuvered unsuccessfully to attach it to the legislation.

This is the sort of noncontroversial legislation that never gets full floor debate in the Senate, and instead waits to be attached a must-pass bill. But leaders of the Appropriations Committee were loath to start adding items to what is an otherwise simple bill keeping government fully running, fearful that it would open the door to more senators who would hold the bill hostage for pet projects.

During a television appearance before McConnell’s announcement Wednesday morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted Trump had not softened his stance on the wall but said the White House wanted to see what Congress would produce.

“The president has said he’s willing to do what he has to do to get that border security, including a government shutdown,” she said on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” “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 said that while Congress had worked successfully with Trump on other issues, lawmakers seemed to be “walking away” on border security.

Still, a number of Republicans held out hope of returning to the immigration issue next year, perhaps to make another run at the type of comprehensive immigration overhaul that has eluded Congress for years. Several GOP lawmakers noted that the short-term funding bill would run out shortly after Trump delivers his State of the Union address, which could serve as a good opportunity for him to make the case for his immigration priorities and exert new pressure on congressional Democrats.

“Hopefully, by laying out some facts, we can put pressure on Democrats to actually come to the table and help us secure the border and fix our horribly broken legal immigration system,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

But this time around, Johnson said of Trump, “he didn’t win the negotiation, that’s for sure.”

John Wagner, Damian Paletta and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.