White House backs off Trump’s $5 billion border wall demand as shutdown looms

Congress and President Trump must reach a deal by midnight Friday.

December 18, 2018, 4:07 PM

As Friday’s deadline to fund the government looms, the White House appeared to back off President Donald Trump's $5 billion demand for border wall funding Tuesday, spinning up questionable options that aides hope would allow the president to save face without shutting down the government.

At the White House Tuesday afternoon, responding to a reporter who asked whether a shutdown could be avoided, Trump had a low-key answer compared to his previous boasting about the prospect.

“We’ll see what happens. It’s too early to say,” Trump said. “We need border security.”

Without a bipartisan compromise on a long-term deal, Congress appears likely to kick the can down the road – with momentum building around a short-term spending bill that maintains the status quo - punting the debate to early next year.

Evolution of spending negotiations

Trump has said he’d be "proud" to take ownership of a shutdown in order to get funding for a border wall.

"I am proud to shut down the government for border security," he told Democratic leaders last week during a meeting in the Oval Office. "I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I won't blame you for it."

But on Capitol Hill, where Republicans still have majorities and the power of the purse, there is little appetite for a partial government shutdown at the end of the week – with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even calling for a “smooth landing” – not a shutdown.

PHOTO: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks with reporters outside the White House, Dec. 18, 2018.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks with reporters outside the White House, Dec. 18, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

The president's so-called 'Slush Fund'

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Fox News that the White House has identified “a number of different funding sources” that it can “couple” with any funding that Congress appropriates – putting $5 billion the president has demanded for the border wall within reach.

Despite the president saying last Tuesday that he would be “proud” to shut down the government over border security, a week later, Sanders insisted the White House does not want to do that.

“At the end of the day we don't want to shut down the government,” Sanders said. “We want to shut down the border from illegal immigration, from drugs coming into this country and make sure we know who is coming and why they're coming.”

PHOTO: President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer abd House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 11, 2018, in Washington.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer abd House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

That apparent policy shift suggests the president could drop his demand for $5 billion in a Homeland Security funding bill and sign an agreement that provides less money, averting a partial shutdown at the end of the week. Democrats have signaled a willingness to approve $1.6 billion for border security, including fencing and technology, but would prohibit that money from building Trump’s wall.

At her first press briefing this month, Sanders told reporters that the White House is currently deferring to lawmakers to determine what they’re able to pass.

“At this point we're disappointed in the fact they've yet to vote and pass something,” Sanders said. “When they do that, we'll make a determination whether we're going to sign that.”

GOP makes its first offer, which Democrats promptly reject

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a deal to Democrats to pass a bipartisan Homeland Security bill, funding border security but not a concrete wall, but also adding $1 billion that Democrats are deriding as a "slush fund" for the president's "radical immigration agenda."

PHOTO: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol, Nov. 15, 2018.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol, Nov. 15, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi quickly announced that Democrats have flatly rejected the GOP’s new proposal.

“We cannot accept the offer they made of a $1 billion slush fund to implement his very wrong immigration policies. So that won’t happen,” Pelosi said.

A short-term continuing resolution?

Pelosi said that a short-term continuing resolution – funding the remaining areas of appropriations at current levels – could be in the cards.

“We’ll see what they come back with,” Pelosi said. “The White House has backed off the wall and that terminology, but what they might want to do with that $1 billion is problematic.”

While the White House says it is looking to see what Congress can pass before the president makes any decisions, Republicans are looking to the White House to see what the president would be willing to accept.

“I’m discussing with the White House where we go next and once I get an answer to that, I’ll talk with Senator Schumer again and see what we can do,” McConnell reported.

“It looks like we’re heading towards a CR,” the No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn said.

Democrats appear to be on board too.

“It’s something we very seriously would consider,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged.

Could White House 'reprogram' appropriations to pay for border wall?

So, where do those “different funding sources” come from that the White House envisions? Sanders did not specify, although the incoming chair of the House Appropriations Committee said last week that it would probably be illegal for Trump to redirect billions in military funds to border wall construction, because Congress has not authorized money to be spent that way.

“President Trump likely lacks the legal authority to redirect significant military resources to border wall construction,” Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said. “To the extent that he could do so at all, it would be reckless and irresponsible to waste national security resources on a border wall that is nothing more than in-kind contribution to his re-election campaign.”

Cornyn, R-Texas, did not seem quite sure where that money would be coming from either and was uncertain whether Trump could redirect funds without congressional approval.

“I’m just interpreting the same words you’re trying to interpret,” Cornyn said. “I think we’d all have to talk to lawyers to figure out what his authority is and whether it requires Congress to approve it."

The president has made all sorts of unsubstantiated claims for how he could pay for the wall – from Mexico, to solar power -- even that the $5 billion could be procured from the economic gains achieved through the rewrite of NAFTA.

Pelosi scoffed at that idea, wondering whether a small business that realizes a tax benefit from the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) would be asked to fork it over to fund the wall.

“It doesn't make any sense. That is basically what he's saying, any benefit our economy might have from….a revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada would be spent on the wall instead of growing our economy, increasing paychecks for our workers,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said last Thursday. “The American people are still paying the price. Mexico is not paying for this wall. But maybe [President Trump] doesn't understand how a trade agreement works, for him to say such a thing.”

Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan also does not seem too keen on forfeiting the lower chamber’s constitutional power of the purse, though last week when he was asked about the president potentially reprogramming money towards the wall, Ryan basically ducked the question and insisted he and Trump were on the same page.

“We can get into the conversations about reprogramming and all of those things. Only the point is we share the president’s goals, which is we need to secure our border,” Ryan said Dec. 11. “So, the president is right to be concerned about border security. We wanna do what it takes to secure the border. We’re here. We support his position and we hope that the Senate Democrats and Leader Pelosi can come around to that as well.”

All eyes remain on the president, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – many working from lame duck cubicles as their tenures in office wind down -- looking to the White House for some answers.

“If the White House has a plan, they’re keeping it to themselves,” GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told ABC News Monday night. “I don't want to have this fight and shut government down unless we've got a chance of winning.”

Acknowledging that it’s highly unlikely that Democrats will come around to the president’s $5 billion request for his border wall, Kennedy reiterated, “We're waiting on instructions from the White House.”

Sanders, however, said administration officials have been in “constant contact” with lawmakers.

“Our team was on the phone with Senate teams this morning,” she said. “I think they know clearly what we want to see.”

What offers are on the table?

Meanwhile, Democrats await word from the White House on two offers they extended last week when Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer clashed with Trump in a televised showdown in the Oval Office.

Congress must pass seven appropriations bills before the end of the day on Dec. 21. Any sectors left unfunded will shut down, forcing 380,000 federal workers on unpaid furlough. Up to 420,000 additional government employees who are deemed “essential” to government operations would be required to work without pay.

Democrats have shown no signs of buckling to Trump's demands, and point to two offers they've extended to the president but the White House has not accepted or rejected.

Democrat offers:

1) Pass the six appropriations bills where appropriators have reached agreement on new spending levels, as well as a continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security at the current level through Sept. 30, 2019.

2) Pass a continuing resolution to fund all seven remaining appropriations bills at current levels through Sept. 30, 2019.

Republican offers:

1) Pass the six appropriations bills where appropriators have reached agreement on new spending levels, as well as the Senate's $1.6 bipartisan Homeland Security bill, plus $1 billion reprogramming of unspent appropriations from FY2018.

If lawmakers fail to keep the government open, a shutdown would likely last into the New Year, after House Democrats take hold of their new majority.

In the event of a shutdown, Pelosi has pledged to pass the second Democratic option as soon as she seizes the gavel on Jan. 3.

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