Government Shutdown Looms Over Border Wall

November 28, 2018

On Nov. 27, House Republican leaders went to the White House in an attempt to find common ground on spending priorities with President Donald Trump and avoid a partial government shutdown on Dec. 7. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and new Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — in her first Oval Office meeting since being elected to the Republican leadership —huddled with Trump to strategize about how to get through the lame-duck session.

It is clear the White House’s top priority now is guaranteeing several years’ worth of funding for wall construction before the Republicans lose full control of Congress. However, there still is no clear way out of a bipartisan lock-jam. Republicans promised Trump that they would fight for his wall funding after the election, and Democrats argue they already have a deal on $1.6 billion in border security, far less than the $5 billion preferred by the president and his allies in Congress. Some Senate Republican leaders have discussed with the president the possibility of providing $5 billion in guaranteed money for the wall but spread over two years. Trump has not ruled out the idea, but it is unclear whether Democrats will go along with that minor concession.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said Trump personally made clear to him before Thanksgiving that anything less than $5 billion would be unacceptable. But Rep. Shelby said Trump’s willingness to deal will depend on exactly how Congress would dole out the money — with the goal of an extended life span for the project, which would cost more than $25 billion.

With seven appropriations bills still outstanding and funding expiring on Dec. 7, there have been staff-level discussions to try to resolve the dispute, although these discussions have yielded little success so far. Still, Congress has enough time to strike a deal as the December holidays approach. Republicans will need at least nine Democratic votes in the Senate and perhaps many more in the House for any spending bill. But Congress is sidelined in some ways on delivering a border wall breakthrough until the president makes his next move, heightening the importance of Tuesday’s meeting.

Leaders in both parties are simultaneously working on a wish list for emergency disaster aid to help with recovery from the hurricanes and wildfires that have ravaged both coasts this year. Attaching such a proposal to the spending legislation would make it difficult for lawmakers from either party to oppose.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is in an especially sensitive position. She has a House Democratic Caucus meeting on Nov. 28, where the caucus will vote and where she is expected to become her party’s speaker nominee. In the January election, Pelosi will need a majority of those casting ballots in the 435-member House, with both parties voting. But the floor vote for speaker will not happen until the first day of the new Congress on Jan. 3, and Pelosi has faced a mini rebellion by some Democrats who want to replace her as party leader. Therefore, Leader Pelosi is not likely to make any concessions on the border wall that could hurt her standing with progressives, which makes an already wide gap between her and Trump even wider.

Prior to Thanksgiving recess, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) won the votes to keep their posts next year. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) emerged as the winner over Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) in the contest for vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Sen. John Thune (S.D.) will serve as the majority whip. Besides maintaining Sen. Schumer as minority leader, the rest of the Democratic leadership team includes Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) as minority whip and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as assistant minority leader.

House Republicans — who will become the minority party in that chamber in January — picked Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as their leader. He fended off a conservative challenge from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). The second position of House minority whip will be Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who serves in the third-ranking role under the current House Republican-controlled leadership.

Although no official adjournment date has been set, it is expected both the House and Senate will close for the remainder of 2018 by Dec. 14. Many Republicans are urging leaders to take up more priorities during the lame-duck given Democrats will take control of the House in just over a month, meaning top-tier issues like additional tax reform, have a very limited amount of time within which they could reasonably pass. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is eyeing a more modest to-do list, saying he will focus on the spending bill, farm bill and confirmation of pending nominees, anything else is icing on the cake.