A new Republican bid to keep the government open past Friday includes no fresh money for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, diminishing the chances of a last-minute spending fight.
The decision to withdraw a roughly $1.5 billion request to begin building a physical barrier between the two countries may eliminate the White House’s best chance to secure the funding and begin construction this year. Nonetheless, President Trump and his aides vowed Tuesday that a wall will be built by the end of his current term.
GOP leaders submitted the new offer Tuesday in an effort to appease Democrats, whose votes are needed to avert a shutdown of federal agencies.
“The wall was never going to be in there. There aren’t enough Republican votes,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and a lead negotiator.
In exchange for backing off the border funding request, Republicans insisted on increases in border security and defense spending, including an unspecified amount to repair fencing and new surveillance technology to patrol the nearly 2,000-mile border, according to multiple House and Senate aides familiar with the ongoing talks. Democrats have indicated that they would support such a plan as long as no money goes toward an actual wall.
Some in the White House have calculated that the Trump administration will have a better chance of funding the wall later this year. Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters Tuesday that the administration knows that the budget plan for fiscal 2018, which begins in October, “is probably going to be a better place for us to better make the case for specific bricks and mortar for the wall. I think that we will have funding for physical barriers.”
The two sides remain at odds over whether the spending bill would include money for subsidy payments under the Affordable Care Act, how long to extend a health-care program for coal miners and unrelated policy measures known as riders.
Tuesday’s offer came as Republicans also pushed negotiations on tax reform and health care, eager to demonstrate forward motion on Trump’s other top domestic priorities. Republican congressional leaders and the chairmen of tax-writing committees huddled with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Gary Cohn to review details of Trump’s tax plan. And conservatives in the House were mulling support for a new proposal to revamp the nation’s health-care system.
A breakthrough came Monday, when Trump seemed to soften his demand for immediate funding for a border wall, telling a small group of conservative reporters he would be open to delaying a confrontation with Democrats over the border until September.
But by Tuesday, a defiant Trump insisted that no matter what happens with the spending fight, “the wall’s going to get built.”
Meeting with farmers at the White House, he defended his administration’s work on border security so far, noting that illegal border crossings have dropped more than 70 percent in the past year.
Asked by reporters when the wall would be built, Trump said, “Soon.”
When one reporter asked whether the wall would be built in his first term, Trump said, “Yeah, we have plenty of time. We’ve got a lot of time.”
Even if funding for a border wall is revisited in the coming months, Trump’s signature campaign pledge will run into fierce resistance in Congress. Border-state Republicans, fiscal conservatives in his own party and Democrats consider the project a non-starter.
“A lot of us have been pushing for additional border security funding for a while, but a solitary, 2,000-mile wall has never been a must-have for anybody in a border state,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose state has more than 300 miles of border with Mexico.
Speaking for many Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly called a border wall “immoral.”
Despite the president’s fluctuations, congressional leaders remained encouraged that at least for now, the White House won’t be pushing for border wall money.
“The fact that the wall is now off the table — Americans should breathe a huge sigh of relief,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate leadership, acknowledged that when it comes to the spending talks, the wall “is becoming more of a nonissue.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a top appropriator, agreed, saying that Trump’s comments were “helpful” to resolving weeks of talks over spending.
“This is that moment where the president has to determine that you need some Democrat votes in the Senate to get the bill done. And the Democrats have to determine that there are a lot of things in that bill that they want, as well,” Blunt said. “They need a bill that the president will sign, and nobody can get too far out of the zone and hope to get both of those things done.”
Less clear was whether Trump would feel blowback from his base. The White House’s decision to back off its request earned a rebuke from prominent conservatives, including radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who told his millions of listeners Tuesday that Trump is “caving on his demand.”
Faulting Democrats for threatening a shutdown, Limbaugh added that if Trump is “willing to withdraw a demand” for border wall money, “then the Democrats will have just learned that this threat works on Trump, too, not just all the other Republicans.”
House and Senate negotiators worked throughout a two-week Easter break on details of the spending plan, but the talks broke down last week after White House officials began demanding greater concessions from Democrats, including explicit funding for the wall.
The issue of health subsidy payments, which affect approximately 7 million Americans, has become the primary sticking point in the talks, the aides said. Democratic leaders demanded that the subsidies, which already are prescribed in the Affordable Care Act but which Trump has said he might not continue, be fully funded in the short-term spending bill to give Congress the power to make the payments.
But some Democrats have signaled a willingness to back down from that demand if the administration commits to continuing the payments on its own. Democrats also may be calculating that if Trump decides to stop the payments, the near-certain political damage would fall to him.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-
ranking member of his caucus, said Tuesday that the subsidies should be handled by the White House, not Congress.
“The president has the authority to go ahead and do it. He ought to do it,” Hoyer told reporters.
The payments are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed by House Republicans, arguing that Congress should have to sign off on the subsidies. A federal district court ruled last year that the payments were illegal but allowed the program to continue during the appeals process.
It is unlikely that both the House and Senate will have enough time to pass an agreement before Friday, increasing chances that Congress will temporarily extend current spending levels. Negotiators would not confirm plans for a stopgap spending measure, but members of the appropriations committees are prepared to approve emergency spending to keep the government open for several days, according to several congressional aides.
Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, David Weigel, Sean Sullivan, Tory Newmyer, Paige Winfield Cunningham and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.