WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress is racing to avoid a partial government shutdown next Friday over President Donald Trump’s border wall. But you wouldn’t know it by the schedule, as lawmakers left town waiting for the White House’s next move.
The House is taking an extended five-day weekend, returning Wednesday night. The Senate returns Monday after a three-day absence.
The ball is in Trump’s court, both sides say, and the president met Friday with top aides to discuss his spending strategy. There’s an expectation on Capitol Hill he’ll reach out soon to offer lawmakers a plan.
The president said this week he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over the $5 billion he wants for the wall on the southern border, but he has since taken a softer tone, tweeting, “Let’s not do a shutdown, Democrats – do what’s right for the American People!” But Trump doesn’t have the votes from the Republican-controlled Congress to support funding for the wall at the level he wants.
Democratic congressional leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, made a counter offer during a contentious meeting at the White House of no more than $1.6 billion, as outlined in a bipartisan Senate bill. The money would not go for the wall but for fencing upgrades and other border security. Democrats also offered to simply keep funding at its current level, $1.3 billion.
Without a resolution, parts of the federal government would shut down at midnight Dec. 21.
Trump met on Friday with legislative affairs director Shahira Knight and budget director Mick Mulvaney to discuss strategy. Some White House aides were startled by Trump’s embrace of a shutdown during his meeting with Democratic leaders, though others argued that it was another example of Trump sticking with his campaign promises.
“The president made it very clear: He does want a border wall. He does want border security. He wants to protect the American people,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Friday.
While Trump has long rallied for the border wall with Mexico, a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, Republicans on Capitol Hill never fully warmed to the plan, and they are less likely now to round up the votes for it after losing the House majority in the November election.
Each passing day brings Democrats closer to taking control of the House, and with Christmas approaching, enthusiasm for a prolonged fight over the wall was waning even among some Republicans who support it.
“We’re out of time,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who lost a bid for re-election last month.
Denham backs the wall as part of a broader immigration overhaul, but said Republicans would be better served by approving a short-term budget resolution that postpones the wall fight until January while keeping the government open.
“Allow the next Congress to come in, get seated, committee chairs to get filled, and then actually have a full debate on a bipartisan solution,” Denham told CNN Friday.
Democrats, meanwhile, are not inclined to give an inch, as seen by the backing Pelosi received after confronting Trump during their televised meeting in the Oval Office. She’s poised to become House speaker when the new Congress convenes Jan. 3.
As of Friday, Trump had neither accepted nor rejected the Democrats’ proposal, according to the Democrats. He told them he would take a look. Trump will need Democratic votes either way, now or in the new year, for passage.
The mood on Capitol Hill has quickly shifted as newly elected members arrive to set up offices on Capitol Hill and dozens of Republicans head for the exits. Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pre-election prediction of a “big fight” over the wall has run up against the reality of the changed circumstances.
Thursday was supposed to be the House’s final day in session for the year, but lawmakers instead were told to return Wednesday night. Already Republican attendance during the lame-duck session has been spotty, and it’s unclear how many votes Ryan will be able to garner in the final days of the GOP’s majority in the House.
Even if a bill with the wall funding passes the House, it is almost certain to fail in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority, and Democrats have pledged to block it from receiving the necessary 60 votes needed to advance.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the incoming minority leader, said on the House floor as lawmakers left for the long weekend that he thinks “going into a shutdown is stupid,” but he offered no immediate plan to resolve the standoff.
Fellow California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, the top Democrat on a subcommittee for homeland security spending, said it makes no sense to be “squandering” $5 billion on the wall when the nation has so many other security vulnerabilities.
“Republicans are driving our nation to the brink of another disastrous government shutdown – at a time of great economic uncertainty and right in the middle of the holiday season,” Roybal-Allard said in the Democrats’ weekly address.
For now, Republicans still control the House, the Senate and the White House, she reminded listeners. “They have the responsibility and the power to keep our government open.”
If the two sides do not reach agreement, about one-quarter of the government would be affected, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks.