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White House relents on $5B for border wall, but Democrats rebuff new GOP offer

  • Author: Erica Werner, Damian Paletta, John Wagner, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 18, 2018
  • Published December 18, 2018

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the speaker-designate for the new Congress in January, talks to reporters after meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as Congress and President Donald Trump bicker over his demand that lawmakers fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, pushing the government to the brink of a partial shutdown, in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. Without a resolution, parts of the federal government will shut down at midnight Friday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Tuesday retreated from his demand for $5 billion to build a border wall as congressional Republicans maneuvered to avoid a partial government shutdown before funding expires at the end of Friday.

But Democrats immediately rejected Republicans' follow-up offer, leaving the two sides still at impasse as hundreds of thousands of federal workers await word on whether they will be sent home without pay just before Christmas.

The new border funding offer from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calls on Congress to pass a $1.6 billion homeland security spending bill that was crafted earlier this year in a bipartisan Senate compromise.

Under the offer, Congress would also reprogram $1 billion in unspent funds that Trump could use on his immigration policies. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who oversees the panel in charge of homeland security funding, said the reprogrammed money would not be able to be used for a physical wall but could be spent on other border security measures.

Sen. Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told McConnell on Tuesday that Democrats would not accept the deal, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized the plan to reprogram the funds.

"Leader Schumer and I have said that we cannot support the offer they made of a billion-dollar slush fund for the president to implement his very wrong immigration policies," Pelosi said. "So that won't happen."

McConnell said he was disappointed that the proposal had been rejected, calling it "a reasonable offer both sides should have been able to accept."

With the two sides again deadlocked, several Republican lawmakers predicted that the most likely outcome would be a short-term budget extension to push back the deadline for a partial shutdown. Such a "continuing resolution" would keep spending at existing spending levels but leave the larger questions of wall funding unresolved. It would also mean the next round of negotiations would probably happen with the House under Democratic control.

Funding for the Homeland Security, Justice, Interior, Agriculture and other departments - comprising a quarter of the federal government - runs out Friday at midnight absent action by Congress and Trump. The funding is all hung up over Trump's demands for $5 billion for the wall, which Democrats have rejected.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Tuesday said that Trump did not want a government shutdown and that the administration had identified "other ways" to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Sanders' comments reflect a significant shift from when Trump last week told Democratic leaders he would be "proud" to shut down the government to get border wall funding.

"We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion," Sanders said on Fox News. "At the end of the day, we don't want to shut down the government, we want to shut down the border."

Sanders said the White House was exploring other funding sources and believed it could be legally done.

"There are certainly a number of different funding sources that we've identified that we can use, that we can couple with money that would be given through congressional appropriations that would help us get to that $5 billion that the president needs in order to protect our border," she said.

On Tuesday, Sanders referenced the $1.6 billion border security bill that was agreed to in the Senate earlier this year on a bipartisan basis. However, in recent weeks, Democrats have said they would support only $1.3 billion for fencing and that the $1.6 billion package would not pass the House.

Some Democrats doubted whether Trump could find a way to fund the wall without Congress signing off on it.

"I still believe in our Constitution, and Congress is the legislative branch," said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. "I think our appropriations process restricts the wall, so I don't see how he does it legally."

Sanders' comments come after a series of miscalculations by the White House and Republicans in recent days over how to try to get Democrats to sign on to $5 billion to pay for the construction of Trump's long-promised wall along the Mexico border.

While meeting with Schumer and Pelosi last week, Trump said he would be "proud" to shut down the government over the issue, a statement congressional Republicans openly said muddied their messaging that Democrats should be blamed for a shutdown.

With Democrats near-unanimously opposing Trump's demand for $5 billion for the wall, Republicans lacked a path to pass it because they could not assemble the 60 Senate votes needed to advance a Homeland Security spending bill.

House and Senate Republicans have been in talks with the White House in recent days looking at other ways to try to secure funding, outside of the traditional appropriations process. They have looked at redirecting already approved money, among other things, according to a person briefed on the talks who requested anonymity to discuss deliberations.

Trump has threatened to shut down the entire border if Democrats do not agree to give him the $5 billion, a threat that did not appear to force capitulation.

Then, on Monday evening, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he was anticipating a proposal from the White House, perhaps at 5 p.m., that never materialized. But the White House never promised a 5 p.m. proposal, and then Senate Republicans signaled that they planned to move ahead on an overhaul of the criminal justice system this week, giving them very little time to negotiate a budget bill.

Meanwhile, the stock market has fallen precipitously in recent weeks, creating economic angst over Trump's agenda. Trump has attacked the Federal Reserve, among others, for the market's tumble, but the slipping stocks have rattled him, according to people who have spoken with him inside and outside the White House.

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the internal White House sentiment.

Congressional Republicans promised Trump several months ago that if he would delay a fight over the border wall until after the midterm elections, they would help him obtain the money in December. But those efforts never materialized, and he was under heavy pressure to avoid a partial government shutdown just a few days before Christmas.

"The advice he's getting is to not do this, to just sign the bill, get this over with and get into 2019, and then have this fight," said Steve Moore, who was an adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign.

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The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.

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