President Trump’s proposed border wall is looming as a central obstacle to passing spending bills by a December deadline.
The top appropriators in the House and Senate have already struck an agreement ahead of Thanksgiving on how to divide $1.37 trillion in annual spending among 12 bills. But lawmakers still need to agree on how to deal with the border wall — a top issue for Trump that precipitated a government shutdown last year.
With just 15 legislative days between the Thanksgiving recess and a deadline of Dec. 20 to pass the spending bills, appropriators will face long odds to avoid another shutdown unless they punt on the issue with a continuing resolution (CR).
“It takes some time just to get that bill written by the staff, so we’re running out of time,” warned Rep. Mario Diaz-Ballart (R-Florida).
The process of passing 12 annual spending bills has already stretched months beyond the October 1 start of the new fiscal year, and despite a deal on allocations, thorny issues such as the wall remain.
“We reached the agreement on numbers, but each individual subcommittee is going to be charged with making decisions within their bill. We did not prejudge any of those,” a Democratic aide said, alluding to the wall.
Trump is loath to back down on a central campaign promise, and has seen conservatives turn on him in the past when he was ready to compromise on the issue. Meanwhile, Democrats, many of whom were elected to be a check on Trump, see their political fortunes tied to blocking the wall effort.
Trump has insisted, as he has each year of his presidency, that Congress allocate $5 billion toward the wall in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending bill, a condition Democrats dismiss out of hand.
Last year, the impasse over funding for the wall led to a 35-day closure, the longest in the nation’s history.
Lawmakers punted on the issue earlier in the summer, when the House, Senate, and White House came together over the summer to agree on overall spending limits.
Unlike past years, where the sides were able to find a compromise by passing a small amount of funding to reinforce existing barriers and build some new ones in the Rio Grande valley, where experts said it could be helpful, the two sides face a more daunting challenge this year.
President Trump’s use of emergency powers to reprogram funds from other departments including Defense for his border wall incensed Democrats, who vowed not to backfill Military Construction projects he effectively defunded and defense accounts he drew down from when transferring the cash toward the wall.
Democrats now want to block Trump’s ability to use transfer authority under emergency powers for the wall, a major sticking point.
Both the House and Senate twice passed resolutions overturning Trump’s emergency declarations, but were unable to overturn Trump’s veto on the matter.
“He’ll never consent to giving up transfer authority, so holding to that rigid position is, frankly, a recipe for a year-long CR, which would probably then be followed by another year-long CR because it’s an election year,” said appropriator Tom Cole (R-Ok.).
“You either have the ability to compromise or you don’t. And I think on this issue, the Democrats have turned it into a holy grail,” he added.
Because the two sides were working under agreed-upon spending limits, the wall issue bled into talks over how overall spending should be split up among the 12 bills, with Democrats concerned that every dollar steered toward the border wall will take away from other domestic priorities.
Going into the Thanksgiving holiday, Democrats and Republicans made progress, agreeing to finalize allocation levels without first finding a wall solution. That, they said, would be left to the subcommittee on Homeland Security to battle out.
“We’ve still got to deal with the wall, too. It’s two separate things. The wall is still there,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
Some say there is room to put politics aside and work out a deal.
“Look, the bottom line is everybody knows ultimately what’s going to have to happen, which is everybody has to have a little bit of a victory and everybody has to give in a little bit. It’s not rocket science,” said Diaz-Ballart.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the ball was in Trump’s court.
“On the first path, President Trump stays out of our way and gives Congress the space to work together and find an agreement. On the second path, President Trump stomps his feet, makes impossible demands, and prevents his party—the Republicans—from coming to a fair arrangement,” he said.
One proposal that has been floated is passing 11 of the bills alongside a CR for Homeland Security, allowing big increases in defense and domestic spending to go through while cordoning off the wall issue.
Shelby said he was open to the idea, while urging all sides to work together.
“We’ve got to work with the White House, because they’ve got the power of signing or not signing any bills. It’s not just the House and the Senate, it’s the White House, too,” Shelby said.
“We can get it all done if we work together,” he added. “If we don’t work together and continue to slow-walk, we’ll be where we are today,” said Shelby.