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Trump wants to add wall spending to stopgap budget bill, potentially forcing shutdown showdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — joined by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), left rear, and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — walks up to reporters following a closed-door strategy session Tuesday on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Trump wants Congress to add defense funding and money for a new wall along the Mexican border in a near-term spending bill intended to keep the government open past April 28, but Capitol Hill Republicans signaled they will reject the idea to avoid a shutdown as well as the deep cuts that the new spending would require.

Trump’s request, outlined in conversations with White House officials and in a memo from budget director Mick Mulvaney, calls for $33 billion in new defense and border spending — and $18 billion in cuts to other priorities, such as medical research and jobs programs.

But it appeared that few on the Hill shared the White House’s appetite to flirt with a government shutdown over the border wall, which Democrats have pledged to oppose and which even some conservative Republicans object to on fiscal grounds.

Several senior Republicans said Tuesday that Trump’s wall request is not likely to be included in the stopgap budget plan, which would merely authorize current spending levels to continue past April 28 — but instead will be considered during separate negotiations later this year to add new spending to the current budget.

“Congress will decide what they want and what they don’t want,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), one of a half-dozen Republicans engaged in spending negotiations to reject the request. “I don’t think we need a shutdown argument, period. I don’t know any rational person who wants a shutdown.”

President Trump has introduced his budget plan, but that's just the beginning of the appropriations process. (Video: Video: Jenny Starrs/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Video: Jenny Starrs/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Just days after the defeat of the American Health Care Act, the disagreement could set up yet another showdown between Hill Republicans and the White House as Trump attempts to take immediate action on some of his more controversial campaign pledges.

John Czwartacki, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Tuesday that the defense funding cannot wait and the requested cuts were an attempt to maintain fiscal responsibility alongside Trump’s pledge to dramatically increase military resources.

“The request for these resources is required to protect our citizens from America’s enemies and to fight terrorism overseas before it comes to our shores,” Czwartacki said. “We must also be mindful of our $20 trillion national debt crisis and how we spend every tax dollar.”

The White House had already asked to jump-start spending this year — including $30 billion for defense generally, in addition to $3 billion for border security, half of which would begin construction for the wall — but Mulvaney’s effort to force the issue in the near-term bill was new.

Also new were the detailed spending cuts intended to offset the defense spending, including more than $7 billion from labor, health and education programs. Many of the cuts would be aimed at key priorities for Democrats, such as money for global reproductive health education, but they also take aim at more broadly popular agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mulvaney also outlined $3 billion in trims to education programs, including Pell grants for low-income college students, and $1.2 billion in cuts to NIH research programs.

A partial government shutdown would begin April 29 if Congress doesn’t pass the short-term spending bill. Democrats did not rule out some increases to war-related military spending, but they have signaled they will not support the White House’s proposed spending cuts or the money for the border wall. Their support is necessary in the Senate, where the spending bill needs 60 votes and Republicans control just 52 seats.

“They are asking for something that is going to be deeply damaging,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) “We’re going to fight back with everything we have.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other senators avoided making any direct commitment on whether the border wall would be included in the upcoming spending bill.

“Democrats and Republicans . . . are working together on this, and we fully anticipate getting an outcome prior to the end of April,” McConnell said.

In addition, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters Tuesday that he expects that there will be a bipartisan spending bill and that a vote to fund the wall would happen in a separate, supplemental bill sometime later this year.

“I would suspect the border wall is in the supplemental,” Blunt said.

Trump’s path forward only gets tougher after health-care fiasco

Senate Democrats prepare for spring battle over border wall

Democrats also scoffed at the idea that the White House would ask Congress to cut widely supported domestic programs to pay for the wall despite Trump’s campaign pledge to make Mexico pay.

“Cutting cancer research, slashing affordable housing and programs to protect the environment, and making middle-class taxpayers pay for a wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for?” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “These may be the Trump administration priorities, but they aren’t the priorities of the American people.”

Republicans in Congress had generally hoped to avoid any serious conflict over the must-pass spending bill and leave the bigger budget battle for later this year. GOP Senate leaders in particular had planned to speed through the spending votes quickly after confirming Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

The White House proposal would almost certainly derail those plans. Even those who like the defense spending increases weren’t interested in forcing a shutdown fight now.

“Ultimately I’m not sure that’s the direction the Appropriations Committee is going to move,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “In the end, the Congress is responsible for spending the money.”

Some Republicans played down the conflict as a normal part of a negotiation over spending priorities. It is common for White House budget officials to send Congress a list of proposed cuts to offset new spending priorities. But rarely do the cuts target popular programs such as medical research at the National Institutes of Health in exchange.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters Tuesday that Congress had just voted the previous year to increase funding for NIH and other research. Cornyn said the difference of priorities was to be expected, but he gave no suggestion that Trump’s spending requests would be entertained.

“I think they’re becoming very aware of how hard the legislative process is,” Cornyn said. “I look at it as a conversation.”

Because of a transcription error, an earlier version mistakenly attributed a quote by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

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