Policy

Senate Republicans Ready to Limp Into Border Wall Fight

With Democratic votes needed, wall funding may not meet what Trump and House GOP want

From left, Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and John Thune, R-S.D., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, conduct a news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday after the policy lunches. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans say they are willing to join their House counterparts in a postelection fight over border wall funding but recognize that their chamber will be more constrained by the need for Democratic votes.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan predicted Monday that there would be a “big fight” in December on appropriating more money for President Donald Trump’s desired wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The Wisconsin Republican wouldn’t foreshadow how that fight would play out, but he didn’t rule out a partial government shutdown as a potential outcome.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking at an AP News event Wednesday, predicted a “relatively lively lame-duck” session. He also wouldn’t rule out a scenario in which some agencies would be shuttered under an appropriations stalemate over border wall funding but sought to distinguish that from a full government shutdown.

“That episode, if it occurs, would be in that portion of the government that we haven’t funded. Seventy-five percent of it we did fund before the end of the fiscal year,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Also Watch: As Midterms Enter Final Stretch, Senators Ready Their Rallying Cries

The lame-duck debate will be less about whether to provide funding for a border barrier — at a minimum, Congress is expected to provide $1.6 billion for fencing just as lawmakers agreed to for fiscal 2018 — and more about how much to appropriate.

The Trump administration asked for $25 billion to build the wall and would ideally want it to come soon in the form of an advanced appropriation.

For fiscal 2019 specifically, Trump officials have requested $5 billion, which House appropriators provided in their version of the Homeland Security spending bill. Senate appropriators provided $1.6 billion in their bill. Neither committee measure has been considered on the floor.

As an early marker for the lame-duck negotiations, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who hopes to succeed Ryan as speaker next year, plans to introduce a bill this week that would provide $23.4 billion for the wall. It’s unclear whether the measure would appropriate all of that — which added to the $1.6 billion Congress appropriated for fiscal 2018 would fulfill Trump’s $25 billion request — in fiscal 2019 or over several years.

“We’re going to try to help [Trump] get what he’s looking for,” McConnell said when asked how much money Republicans would push for. It was unclear if he was referring to Trump’s $5 billion request for fiscal 2019 or the remaining $23.4 billion needed to complete the project.

Compromise number?

Behind the scenes, appropriators in both chambers have been discussing a potential compromise for fiscal 2019 funding that would fall between the $1.6 billion in the Senate bill and the $5 billion in the House bill.

“That’s what I have thought about and would kind of talk among others … about whether there might be some way that we can [compromise],” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby said.

Despite the efforts underway to reach a deal, the Alabama Republican agreed with Ryan’s assessment on the battle ahead and predicted that Senate Republicans would be willing to fight push for more than $1.6 billion.

“I think it’s going to be a big fight … always because of the different views,” Shelby said.

Senate appropriator Shelley Moore Capito, who chairs the subcommittee in charge of the Homeland Security funding bill, said the lack of an agreement on the measure before the new fiscal year began Oct. 1 underscores the nature of the challenge. But the West Virginia Republican said she hopes the battle won’t be as bloody as Ryan seemed to hint at.

“I hope it’s not a big fight, but I mean it will be a fight,” she said.

Other Senate Republicans said Wednesday they want to fight for border wall funding but acknowledged they will have to compromise with Democrats and thus the amount may be less than what Trump and House Republicans want.

“It is something we’re committed to doing,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said.

“The president is very committed to this. It’s easier in the House to increase the amount of wall funding because they can do with a simple majority, but over here having to do everything with 60 [votes] makes our job that much harder,” the South Dakota Republican said.

Midterms matter

The midterm results will influence the leverage both parties have heading into the lame-duck negotiations.

House Republicans may have a weakened hand if they lose their majority, as most prognosticators suggest is likely, but they will have still have control during the final months of this session to pass any amount of wall funding they’d like.

Senate Republicans, who are favored to hold on to their majority but are facing more competitive races than initially expected, could have more leverage if their party can pick up a few seats in November. Senate Democrats might be more inclined to negotiate a compromise this year before losing numbers under such a scenario but probably less so if Democrats win the majority in the House, creating more leverage for the party overall in the next Congress.  

An ideal scenario for Republicans is they hold on to their majorities in both chambers and pick up some seats in the Senate.

“We think that when we get through the fog of an election season, that on the back end of that, hopefully, there’ll be some Democrats who want to work with us,” Thune said. “And there’ll be some things that they want that we can probably negotiate with them on. But we’re going to give it our best shot to make sure that we are funding the wall, building the wall.”

Democrats in both chambers have fought vehemently against the idea of a physical wall while saying they support stronger border security measures. They touted language in the fiscal 2018 omnibus allowing fencing but preventing a concrete barrier as a win.

Asked Wednesday about the looming fiscal 2019 fight over wall funding, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer left a lot of room for negotiating.

“We Democrats believe in strong border security,” he said. “There was no stronger bill than the bipartisan bill passed by Sen. McCain, myself and the gang of eight in terms of border security. And we’re going to keep fighting for the strongest, toughest border security.”

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