Congress Moves to Avoid Shutdown Yet Plan Lacks Trump Assurance
(Bloomberg) -- Congress plans to vote Thursday on a spending bill to avert another government shutdown while giving President Donald Trump only part of the money he seeks to build a border wall. Trump signaled he’ll probably accept the plan though he hasn’t committed to signing it.
The plan provides $1.375 billion for 55 new miles of border fencing, far short of the $5.7 billion the president sought to build the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, his main promise during the 2016 campaign. He said the White House will look for “landmines” in the plan before he decides whether to sign it.
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, followed by a House vote on final passage that would send the legislation to Trump for his signature, according to a House Democratic aide. A single senator could object to a Thursday vote, causing a delay.
The measure must be enacted before midnight Friday to avoid forcing government agencies including the Treasury and Justice departments to shut down again. A 35-day partial closure ended Jan. 25 when Trump accepted a short-term spending bill without extra wall funding.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said in a statement after the bill was introduced late Wednesday that the plan would allow Trump to construct only existing styles of border barriers. Democrats also see victories in increased funding for humanitarian aid at the border, alternatives to detention and aid to Central America.
The bill would give federal civilian workers a 1.9 percent pay raise, overriding a pay freeze signed by Trump during the shutdown.
It also would fund a new polar ice-breaker for the Coast Guard. Companies asked to submit designs are Bollinger Shipyards Inc., Fincantieri Marine Group, General Dynamics Corp., Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. and VT Halter Marine Inc., according to a Coast Guard contract.
Republicans claimed victory on a provision that rejected Democratic demands for a cap on immigrant detention beds and instead sets a goal of reducing the number while allowing the administration to exceed the funding level on an emergency basis.
Republicans touted that the bill provides 55 miles of barrier in the Border Patrol’s highest priority areas, a $942 million increase to Customs and Border Protection for 800 new officers, and $615 million for new equipment at ports of entry.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said in a statement the plan “makes a significant down payment on the border wall.” It includes a total of $22.54 billion for border security, according to the statement from his office.
In the House, “the overwhelming majority of Democrats will vote for it and I expect some Republicans to vote for it,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. He said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “has indicated to me he’s very confident that it will pass the Senate with a lot of Republican votes.”
Trump took most of the political blame for a 35-day partial shutdown that started in December when he refused to back a short-term bipartisan spending plan because it lacked the wall money. This time, the president is likely to attempt to tap other federal funds to pay for the wall.
“I don’t want to see a shutdown. A shutdown would be a terrible thing,” Trump told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office. He said the White House will “take a very serious look” at the final legislation.
The president has rejected bipartisan agreements before. Congress was close to passing the short-term spending measure in December when Trump surprised leaders by saying he would refuse to sign it.
Trump suggested in a tweet Tuesday that he could get border wall money elsewhere in the budget. He wrote that he would consider the spending bill while “knowing that this will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources.”
Congressional Republicans have been pointing Trump to pots of federal money he could tap for a wall to steer him away from using a politically difficult emergency declaration to bypass Congress, a strategy sure to be challenged in court.
The president is under pressure from his conservative allies to use executive action to bypass Congress to build the wall.
“If the president were to sign this agreement based on the contours of what has been reported and did nothing else it would be political suicide,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
Meadows said there would be no “political liability” from conservatives, however, “if he also takes executive action.”
Democrats successfully pushed to exclude some areas in Texas from fence construction, including the National Butterfly Center and a SpaceX launch pad, and to give local officials more say in placement of the fencing.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said a number of senators want to vote Thursday so they can head off on congressional trips or return home for the President’s Day recess. “I want to see my grandkids. I want to go skiing,” Leahy said.
Scouring the Budget
To secure wall funding, GOP Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said he was scouring the budget for funding sources that won’t trigger a power struggle with Congress. He said he found at least one: a program to combat drug trafficking that has $800 million left in its account.
Other possible sources of money include military construction funds, Army Corps of Engineers projects, and money forfeited by convicted criminals. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said he warned Trump not to touch military construction funds, but he could live with using Army Corps funds.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democrats said that Trump would be barred from making transfers without congressional approval, and the matter could wind up in court.
The measure to be voted on Thursday would fund nine government departments through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, including Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development. Also funded would be independent agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.
Democrats said the bill provides $1 billion for the Census while housing programs will get a $1.3 billion boost. As a bargain with Trump on infrastructure remains elusive, the package includes $1.2 billion more for such purposes.
The package would complete the spending bills for all agencies of government, which is likely to be harder to accomplish in a divided Congress for the next fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Republicans and Democrats decided not to try to resolve other major financial issues that will arise in coming months, such as increasing the federal debt limit, raising budget caps, extending expiring tax provisions and providing back pay for contractors that lost money during the shutdown.
--With assistance from Laura Litvan, Billy House and Steven T. Dennis.
To contact the reporters on this story: Erik Wasson in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Anna Edgerton in Washington at email@example.com
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