Written by Emily Cochrane
Moving to end a looming government shutdown, Congress is hoping to pass a stopgap spending bill this week that would keep the government funded through February 8 — and would punt the impasse over a southern border wall to the new year and a divided Congress.
Lawmakers and aides had thought the measure, first announced by Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, the majority leader, could pass the Senate as soon as Wednesday before being taken up Thursday by the House and sent to President Donald Trump before the midnight Friday deadline, when funding lapses for nine federal departments. Both Democratic leaders, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Nancy Pelosi of California, said Democrats would support such a measure.
“I’m glad the leader thinks the government should not shut down over the president’s demand for a wall,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Shutting down the government before Christmas is a terrible idea — one of the worst to come down the pike in a very long time.”
But it remained unclear if Trump, who has been a volatile factor throughout the spending debate, would sign such a measure without the $5 billion he has demanded for a wall at the border with Mexico. Vice President Mike Pence, leaving a luncheon on Wednesday with Senate Republicans, did not answer questions from reporters about whether the president would endorse a stopgap spending bill.
Trump has publicly embraced shutting down the government to force Democrats to capitulate on wall funding, but in the past two days, White House officials have signaled a softening of that position.
“I don’t believe the leader would bring it up if he hadn’t had some assurance that the president would sign,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “But you never know.”
The bill would not only maintain funding for the departments and agencies covered by seven spending bills that have not passed, but it would extend a number of programs set to expire, including the Violence Against Women Act, the National Flood Insurance Program and critical Medicaid provisions. Shelby said a vote on the bill could be delayed by “holds” placed on the legislation by other lawmakers.
As of Wednesday evening, one hold delaying a Senate vote came from a bipartisan coalition of Western senators, adamant for a vote on a lands package — a handful of bills that include the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and put in place protection for the gateway to Yellowstone National Park and the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. They argued that the package could be voted on separately or attached to the short-term spending bill.
“Time to get it done,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a sponsor of a bill that would permanently reauthorize the conservation fund. “The West wants to be heard.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., even took over presiding over the Senate for a period of time on Wednesday so a colleague could read the bills, said Julia Doyle, a spokeswoman for the senator.
“There’s trouble in paradise,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “Meanwhile, as the hours go by, the plane reservations disappear.”
Asked if there would be a vote on the bill on Wednesday, McConnell told reporters, “We’ll let you know.”
Avoiding a partial government shutdown was a welcome prospect for lawmakers, particularly given the holiday timing and the number of lawmakers who await retirement at the end of the session or have quietly left after their November defeats. But even though a path to funding had been made clear for the first time in days, few were satisfied.
Not only would Republicans lose their last foreseeable vehicle to secure funding for Trump’s signature campaign promise, but they would hand Pelosi a triumph before the speaker’s election in January.
“I never believed we had a chance to go forward,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “I was never as sanguine as some about the possibility that Mrs. Pelosi would risk her speakership to fund President Trump’s wall.”
“It’s been clear to me,” he added, “that at least on this issue, Mrs. Pelosi has been running the show.”
Some House Republicans on Wednesday night warned that they would continue to lobby for a vote on wall funding.
“It’s time to deliver,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wrote on Twitter. “No more excuses. We’re ready to fight.”
Some House Democrats were frustrated that they would again have to confront the funding issue only two months into their majority, instead of focusing on a new agenda.
In a statement, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, condemned the Republican majority for having “chosen to kick the can down the road for a third time.” She vowed to pass spending legislation that does not fund the border wall.
And the lawmakers and aides who had feverishly negotiated the details of the remaining bills voiced disappointment that their work would be shelved for now.
“We ended up with the best of all worlds — a good compromise,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.
Republican lawmakers have struggled to find a compromise between Trump’s demands and Democratic opposition to spending money on a concrete wall at the border, a final dose of dysfunction in the waning moments of a Republican majority in Washington.
“I’m sorry that my Democratic colleagues couldn’t put the partisanship aside and show the same good-faith flexibility that the president has shown in order to provide the resources our nation needs to secure the integrity of our borders as well as the safety of American families,” McConnell said, speaking Wednesday morning on the Senate floor.
Democrats, with a majority in the House just two weeks away, have refused to budge from the offers they had laid out for the president, which included up to $1.6 billion for border security, but nothing for the border wall. Democratic votes are needed to clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
But by declaring he would “own a shutdown” in a contentious televised Oval Office meeting last week, Trump had deprived Republican lawmakers of their ability to pin responsibility for a shutdown on the Democrats.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday and Wednesday, he appeared to hedge his position.
“One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!” Trump wrote on Wednesday, later insisting in a second tweet that a newly negotiated North American trade deal would allow Mexico to indirectly pay for the wall, a claim that has been met with skepticism.
One senator — Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a self-described silver-lining guy — said that delaying resolution until February could pave the way for a more thorough approach to border security and an immigration overhaul.
“Why don’t we get to a rational discussion about border security, immigration reform, path to citizenship for the DACA population and solve that problem?” he said. “Actually, getting the $5 billion or the full funding maybe makes that discussion more likely to take place in the next Congress.”