Trump Boosts Shutdown Odds by Hardening Demands for Border Wall

By Erik Wasson
December 12, 2018, 4:00 AM EST

Impasse with Democrats leaves no easy solution in Congress
Only some agencies would shutter if funding deadline not met

An Oval Office confrontation between Donald Trump and the top two Democrats in Congress has set Washington on course for a partial government shutdown next week, as the president hardened demands for border wall funding and vowed to take responsibility for the impasse.

The sit-down on Tuesday with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi quickly devolved into acrimony -- highlighting the gulf between Democrats and Trump over must-pass U.S. spending legislation while putting a possible compromise further out of reach.

Trump and Democrats are so far apart they can’t even agree on the terms of the debate, whether it’s about a wall or a fence or border security generally. The president is insisting on $5 billion for a concrete wall while Schumer and Pelosi are offering $1.375 billion for fencing along the southern frontier with Mexico.

A shutdown, which would occur after Dec. 21, would be very different in scale than others in recent years. Only some departments and agencies would be shuttered, and essential employees in those affected would still report to work. That’s because Congress and Trump previously approved funding bills for three quarters of the $1.2 trillion in operating expenses for federal agencies.

Affected Agencies

Among agencies facing a partial shutdown are the Homeland Security Department, though many of the agency’s law enforcement agents will remain on the job because they’re considered essential. National parks would remain open but most employees who maintain them would be sent home. The Securities and Exchange Commission would halt new investigations except where needed “for the protection of property.” The Defense Department is funded and would operate normally.

Hours after Trump and the Democratic leaders aired their differences, the president said: “Believe it or not, I think it was a very friendly meeting.”

"I don’t mind having the issue of border security on my side,” he told reporters. “If we have to close down the country over border security I actually like that, in terms of an issue."

Pelosi privately bragged to other Democrats about the outcome of the meeting with Trump.

“The fact is we did get him to say, to fully own that the shutdown was his,” she said, according to an aide in the room. “That was an accomplishment.”

Pelosi, who is poised to become House speaker in January, also took the opportunity to tweak Trump to her fellow Democrats. She told them, according to the aide, “It’s like a manhood thing for him -- as if manhood could ever be associated with him -- this wall thing.”

Second Conversation

Pelosi later told reporters that she and Trump spoke by telephone -- she called it “a pleasant conversation” -- and that the president said he is still reviewing the options that the two Democrats laid out.

But lawmakers from both parties said they aren’t sure how the impasse can be resolved.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations panel. “I haven’t called the president yet. I may wait a bit for things to cool off.”

Trump has been threatening a shutdown for months over his demand to fully fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border; It was one of the central promises of his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump is forcing lawmakers from his party to make a difficult decision: Stand with him and get blamed for a shutdown or oppose him and risk suffering his wrath.

While some GOP lawmakers, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Trump for standing firm, others weren’t so sure.

‘Fool’s Errand’

Senator Shelly Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who coauthored a draft compromise border security bill earlier this year, said she is deeply concerned about the impasse leading to a shutdown.

“It’s a fools errand in my opinion,” she said.

Capito urged Trump in an Oval Office meeting earlier this year to embrace her bipartisan proposal for $1.6 billion in border fence funding, an increase from the $1.3 billion provided by Congress last year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that he is hoping for a miracle to resolved the standoff.

“One thing that’s pretty clear no matter who precipitates a government shutdown, the American people don’t like it,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

Democrats’ Objections

Democrats have little incentive to compromise. Most lawmakers from the party object to Trump’s wall and would rather spend $5 billion on domestic priorities. Pelosi, who is seeking the House speaker’s job when her party takes control of the chamber in January, is trying to appeal to progressive Democrats who would probably vote against her if she gives in to Trump’s demands.

Pelosi and Schumer said Trump doesn’t have enough votes in the House or Senate to pass funding bills with $5 billion for the wall, even though the GOP holds a majority in both chambers. In the Senate, because 60 votes are needed to pass funding bills, support from at least some Democrats is needed. In the House, Pelosi said Tuesday there’s not enough Republican support for the measure to pass.

Some House Republicans say Pelosi is wrong about support for Trump and the wall in the chamber. GOP leaders are considering a vote on funding legislation that includes $5 billion for Trump’s wall to bolster the president, according to a GOP leadership aide.

Oklahoma Republican Representative Tom Cole said a spending package with $5 billion for was funding probably could get through the House but it would be “an exercise in futility” because there wouldn’t be enough votes in the Senate.

Potential Standoff

If there is a shutdown that lasts into January, when Democrats take control of the House, the chamber could pass spending bills to end the shutdown that don’t include wall funding. That would force McConnell to either stand with Trump or take up the House legislation.

The spending bills already passed by Congress and signed by Trump will keep some departments operating, including Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

At the Department of Homeland Security, the overwhelming majority of border patrol, emergency management and immigration enforcement staff would be able to keep doing their jobs, though with their pay delayed.

At the Department of Housing and Human Development, on the other hand, 87 percent of the agency’s 7,800 employees would be sent home. The Treasury Department is among agencies that would furlough workers. Its biggest component is the Internal Revenue Service and most of its employees wouldn’t report to work because it’s not tax season. Environmental Protection Agency employees would also be furloughed.

The Food and Drug Administration, funding for which would expire, says it would “continue vital activities,” while stopping routine inspections of pharmaceutical and food plants. The State Department would keep issuing passports -- unless the office in question is inside a building run by another agency that gets shut down.

— With assistance by Anna Edgerton, John Fitzpatrick, and Sahil Kapur