Congressional Republicans might deliver some more bad news for President Donald Trump, fresh off their embarrassing failure to scrap Obamacare: No new money is coming to build his wall.
Trump hoped to jump-start construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with money in a must-pass government funding bill. But Democratic leaders are vowing to block any legislation that includes a single penny for the wall.
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With the GOP consumed by its own divisions, the White House and Hill Republicans will have to rely on Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown next month in what would be another disaster for Trump’s fledgling presidency.
Republican leaders, wary of this, are considering a plan that would not directly tie the border wall money to the April 28 government funding deadline. Some Republican insiders worry that the president cannot afford another major legislative setback — and they believe a shutdown showdown would result in just that.
While no decision has been made by GOP leadership, Republican lawmakers may decide to decouple the two to avoid a confrontation with Democrats. If they do, the chances of getting Trump’s wall funding passed this spring become slim.
“It remains to be seen,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) in an interview. “What I would like to see is a plan for how the money would be spent and a good faith discussion about what border security is really composed of. We haven’t had that.”
Asked about the prospects for a lapse in government funding, Cornyn was definitive: “There’s not going to be a shutdown.”
The White House made an initial request earlier this month for $1.4 billion in border wall funding as part of a package that boosts defense spending by $30 billion, with the thought that it would hitch a ride to the broader government funding bill due next month. Republicans expect the final price tag for the wall could be more than $20 billion.
The problem is that polls show the border wall is not all that popular, particularly if the United States is paying for it, and it does not unify congressional Republicans in the way Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch or even the basic goal of repealing Obamacare have done. That makes it a harder sell to the rank-and-file GOP — especially if pressing it means playing a government shutdown blame game with Democrats.
“The border wall is probably not a smart investment,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who proposes funding the wall as part a package legalizing some young undocumented immigrants and beefing up enforcement.
Several sources said it is unclear whether Trump wants to take the fight to Democrats over the wall or avoid a shutdown battle. His Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in recent weeks has suggested the administration will focus more on the wall in the future, perhaps as late as fiscal 2019. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But building the wall was Trump’s signature campaign promise. Pushing off funding for it now would leave Trump with another unchecked campaign pledge at a time the White House is thirsty for a victory after its Obamacare debacle.
Some defense hawks, like Graham, are concerned that the border wall fight could complicate an effort to get extra spending for the military.
“Democrats, I think, are in a spot where they’re open-minded to military spending as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of” domestic spending, Graham said. “Here’s what I’d tell my colleagues in the House: If you don’t think the Defense Department is an emergency situation, you’ve just stopped listening.”
Of course, some in the GOP are itching for a border battle. A senior Republican source suggested Trump could conceivably win a shutdown fight if he went to the mat to defend it: “This is his signature issue. I cannot imagine a scenario where the Trump administration loses on the border wall funding. If I were them, I’d dare the Democrats to shut down the government over this.”
Another senior House Republican source disagreed completely: "The Trump administration can’t have another disaster on its hands. I think right now they have to show some level of competence and that they can govern."
Republicans began the year thinking that they could get moderate Democrats and perhaps even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to fund construction of a wall that some Democrats have supported in the past. But Schumer has warned McConnell that his party will not support any “riders” in the funding bill intended to jam Democrats with conservative policies.
“The wall is a poison-pill rider,” Schumer said in an interview. “They’ll do it at their peril.”
Other than the issue of the wall, the spending process on Capitol Hill is proceeding apace. Republicans and Democrats are working diligently together on a measure to fund the government through September that can appeal to the center of each party, according to lawmakers and aides.
But adding the wall into the mix would create a toxic political environment.
“That’s a bigger problem,” said a Republican senator familiar with the emerging spending bills. Including wall funding in the must-pass government funding bill “would be hard.”
House Republicans are expected to act first.
While the chamber operates on majority rule and could conceivably write red-meat appropriations bills that include wall funding, GOP leaders expect a significant number of conservatives to defect on any government funding bill, as they have in the past.
And after the hard-line House Freedom Caucus brought down the Obamacare replacement bill last week, GOP insiders worry they can’t depend on them to help get major legislation across the finish line.
The conservative caucus discussed giving Trump "greater flexibility" on spending bills during a closed-door Monday night meeting, according to Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows — so long as it includes funding for Trump’s wall.
"We understand that we have a very narrow margin of victory… and we understand it may require us to take more difficult votes than we have in the previous Congress," the North Carolina Republican told reporters.
One option for the House is to pass the government funding bill and the border and defense package in a way that allows the Senate to easily separate the two measures later.
Republicans could pass a bipartisan bill keeping the government open and then attach a second GOP bill with wall funding. That would let the Senate strip the wall provision from the must-pass bill to avert a government shutdown, and the House would be forced to swallow what the Senate can pass.
If Trump insists, House GOP leaders could include the wall money directly in the government funding bill — but they could lose only 22 Republicans if they receive no Democratic support.
Even if the House manages to pass a spending measure that includes funding for the wall, Republicans will need at least eight Senate Democrats to break a filibuster to fund the government, something Schumer says isn’t happening if border wall money is included.