Both parties are refusing to bend, with a government funding deadline two weeks away.
Congress just can’t help itself: With a partial government shutdown potentially two weeks away, Democrats and Republicans are dug in, each side upping its demands and vowing not to buckle to the other.
President Donald Trump is pressuring Republicans to obtain at least $5 billion for his border wall, far more than what Senate Democrats are prepared to give. Democrats in turn are considering pushes for legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller and the elimination of a citizenship question from the next census, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
Meanwhile House Democrats are embroiled in a divisive leadership fight, limiting the energy that Nancy Pelosi can devote to the year-end spending negotiations. And House Republicans, set to enter the minority in just a month and a half, recognize this is their last chance to get a down payment for Trump’s wall before entering legislative obscurity.
The stakes have been lessened somewhat by deals this summer to fund about 75 percent of the government until next fall. But a partial shutdown isn’t what either party is looking for, either.
“I don’t want to screw with those deadlines; I don’t want to engage in shutdown politics. Let’s fund the federal government and move on,” Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said on Tuesday. “I wish Democrats would cooperate. They all said they want to secure the border, so OK: It’s going to require better barriers.”
“If that gets in the mix, there has to be something in return for that,” shot back Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “I myself have a pretty hard position that Democrats should not even be engaged in discussions about that because [Trump] made it very clear that Mexico was going to pay for that wall.”
Indeed, though a shutdown would be viewed as poor optics for both sides, backing down might be worse, with each party’s base eager to fight.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has made clear he’s in no mood to swallow a major concession on wall money that would boost the president, publicly urging Trump to stay out of the negotiations.
But Trump is unbowed. He’s refused to rule out a shutdown and has told GOP leaders that he wants no less than $5 billion for the wall, according to sources familiar with internal talks. That’s more modest than Trump’s earlier demands, which went as high as $25 billion.
And some Republicans are still eager to help him get there. Last week, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced a bill providing $25 billion for the wall while proposing to pay for it by cutting benefits for undocumented immigrants and levying fines on people who cross the border illegally.
“Here is the thing: Walls work. We know they work,” Inhofe said in introducing his bill.
Still, that sum of money is now out of reach, and Democrats would need major concessions from Republicans to deliver even $5 billion at this point. Some Republicans have discussed providing that amount over two years, but the GOP has yet to rally around that position, and it’s not clear that the president would view that as enough.
People in both parties say there would be little reason for a shutdown if not for the wall demand. Both parties have broadly agreed to spending levels for 2019, but the border security portion is bedeviling Capitol Hill and has given Democrats an opening to ask for legislation protecting the special counsel and removal of the citizenship question.
Senate Democrats have endorsed $1.6 billion for the wall in a bipartisan Homeland Security funding bill, an amount that made some in the caucus queasy. Democratic leaders say they will go no further.
That amount is “more than adequate,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “They are still sitting on money from a year or two ago that they can’t spend.”
House Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to deliver Trump more wall money while they are in the majority and meet the president’s demand of $5 billion in their spending bill. A senior House Republican aide said the House is still working toward that number in year-end spending talks, and Senate Republicans say they are right there with them.
“He’s very committed to that. We are too,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the incoming majority whip. “I’m hoping we’re able to get closer to what he’s trying to do in terms of funding the wall.”
If both sides remain at odds, congressional leaders will have to begin weighing fallback plans. Already some Republicans think they may need a weeklong stop-gap bill to give more time for spending talks, according to one senior aide close to the talks. Government funding currently runs out on Dec. 7, and most congressional leaders view that as a hard deadline and do not wish to prolong negotiations.
But if the deep ideological rift between the two parties still can’t be bridged, leaders might need to consider a continuing resolution to fund agencies through next September. That might be preferable to kicking the fight until January, when House Democrats take over; a spending deadline is not an ideal way to kick off a new majority. But it would result in billions less in spending for domestic programs, a major blow to Democrats’ funding priorities.
Meanwhile, the possibility of a partial shutdown still looms if the president decides he will not sign any bill that falls short of his border wall goals. Johnson made clear that’s not ideal, but he also played down the consequences if Congress fails to come to an agreement by the deadline.
Everyone, it seems, is beginning to prepare for the worst.
“How much would actually shut down? Particularly [the Department of Homeland Security] — most of DHS is deemed necessary for national security; it doesn’t shut down,” Johnson said. “It’s very difficult to shut down the vast majority of the federal government. The federal government is going to keep going along no matter what happens.”