Republicans had been caught in one of their biggest dilemmas of the year: Whether to cross President Donald Trump and ignore his demand for border wall funding or join him and invite a government shutdown while the GOP controls all of Washington.
With four days before government funding expires, administration officials had stepped up their insistence that a must-pass spending bill include initial funding for his U.S.-Mexico border wall — surprising Republican leaders who had been quietly moving forward with Democrats on legislation without money for the wall.
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But then Trump gave GOP lawmakers an escape hatch, telling conservative journalists at a White House reception Monday evening that he would be comfortable delaying a fight over the wall until September.
That will be welcome news to Senate Republican leaders, who met for nearly an hour on Monday to go over their plight. They emerged “optimistic” about getting a deal with Democrats, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). And now, it might not require delivering Trump some bad news.
One Republican senator said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has not indicated whether he supports Trump’s request for wall money. But the senator, who would only speak anonymously, said the preference of most GOP leaders is to deliver Trump only border technology and staffing and leave the fight for “new money on a new wall for later.”
“I think that’s where we are,” the senator said.
Still, the administration’s hard-line position had received some rhetorical support on Capitol Hill. As they returned Monday from a two-week recess, Senate Republicans bashed Democrats for vowing not to vote for any bill funding the wall despite a number of Democratic senators who voted to authorize a border fence in 2006.
“They ought to quit playing games. They ought to provide for at least this down payment to continue completing work that they’ve already voted for,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas). “Seems to be kind of a no-brainer.”
Replied Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Senate Democrat: “We are not going to accept border wall money. We’re just not.”
Trump’s previous insistence on funding for the wall, pushed by top administration officials over the weekend and reiterated Monday by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, had derailed bipartisan talks on a large spending package to fund the government through September.
Meanwhile, Republicans blamed Democrats for complicating negotiations by making new demands on providing permanent Obamacare subsidies for low-income people. The dispute may require Congress to pass a short-term funding bill to avoid a shutdown on Friday night; Blunt said that decision would be made by the end of Tuesday.
Democrats laid out a hard line against the border wall more than a month ago, placing Republicans in the uncomfortable political position of picking between a potentially disastrous shutdown fight or leaving Trump’s priorities behind.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Monday night that he had interpreted Trump’s comments to conservative media outlets as “taking the wall off the table” in spending talks. “Now the bipartisan and bicameral negotiators can continue working on the outstanding issues,” he said in a statement.
Even conservative Democrats were largely opposed to Trump’s demands.
“If the president is able to get the Mexicans to pay for it, God bless him. I don’t think it should be a high priority for us to pay for it right now with all the different demands we have,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, perhaps the closest congressional Democrat to Trump.
Republicans had quietly signaled for weeks that they preferred to skirt a battle over the $1.4 billion in requested wall funding — but Trump’s tweetstorms about the wall and his emissaries’ public statements had made it impossible to ignore.
“If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!,” Trump tweeted on Monday, hours before he signaled new flexibility.
It’s still not clear how hard congressional Republicans wanted to fight for wall funding, especially as lawmakers in both parties are willing to support more funding for border security that’s not explicitly for a wall on the Mexican border. Such a move would allow both parties to save face but would still amount to a major letdown for Trump as he approaches his 100th day in office on Saturday.
“One way or the other, I assume there will be security dollars in the budget. The question is whether they are specifically for a wall or something else,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber. Asked whether he supports putting wall funding in the spending bill, he said: “If we could get that, then yeah.”
Adding to the confusion is Trump’s idea of cutting off the Obamacare subsidies if Democrats don’t fund the border wall. About $7 billion is needed to provide low-income people with insurance assistance; seeking leverage, Trump has suggested he could cut off the payments, which would cripple the 2010 health care law as well as the individual insurance market.
Some Democrats, particularly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, are pushing for a concession from Republicans for a permanent fix on the subsidies, though Democrats are far more likely to receive a temporary patch given the GOP’s opposition to propping up Obamacare. Democrats made Republicans an offer on the matter on Sunday, but a Democratic aide said Republicans have not responded.
And on Monday, some Republicans seemed more enamored with fighting for the border wall on the spending bill and leaving the Obamacare fight to a more comprehensive discussion about replacing the law. The House could vote in the coming days on a repeal-and-replace bill.
The wall is “part of the president’s priority, and we’re talking about .14 percent of discretionary spending,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). The Obamacare subsidies, he said, should be “resolved, frankly, in the overall repeal-and-replace” discussion.
Given the state of negotiations and high political stakes, some Republican allies are hoping that Congress will punt the budget fight to the fall and regroup.
Tim Phillips, president of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said his organization wants House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and McConnell to drop negotiations with Democrats on a larger deal and pass a “continuing resolution” to fund the government at current spending levels through the end of September. He fears that if Democrats and Republicans resolve their differences, the end result will be increased spending rather than the fiscal restraint long vowed by the GOP.
“We want a clean CR that sticks to the discretionary spending caps that too often in the past have been ignored,” Phillips said. “We’re not for a shutdown.”
Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim, John Bresnahan, Rachael Bade and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
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