Wall funding talks ‘tenuous’ as appropriators report progress

Negotiations moving to a trade-off that could allow each side to walk away with a win

A section of the border wall stretches through the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border on Aug. 20, 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A section of the border wall stretches through the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border on Aug. 20, 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 9, 2019 at 4:10pm

Senior appropriators on Monday were narrowing gaps on border wall funding that have held up a deal for months, according to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a key negotiator.

But the West Virginia Republican, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said after meeting with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other senior Republicans that there wasn’t yet agreement. 

“I don’t want to get specific with the numbers because we’re still in a tenuous” negotiation, she said. Capito earlier said negotiators were getting closer to a wall funding compromise, having traded six offers in the past four days. “I’m encouraged but we’re still not there,” she said.

Congressional leaders were wrestling with a host of unresolved issues kicked upstairs after a productive weekend of spending talks, ranging from border wall construction to unrelated riders such as surprise medical billing and satellite television legislation.  

“Leadership is involved. Their top people know what we’re trying to do,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Monday. “And the question is: Time’s ticking away.“ 

Wall funding has been the major impediment to a spending deal. Sources familiar with the talks said negotiators were moving toward a trade-off that neither side would be happy with, but could allow each to walk away with a win: President Donald Trump likely retaining authority to transfer funds from the Pentagon to border security accounts, but new wall funding would be flat at best from fiscal 2019 levels.

[Road ahead: Impeachment articles and spending bills top the agenda]

No decisions had been made and congressional and White House aides were reluctant to discuss details given the sensitivity of the talks. 

To date, Democrats have unsuccessfully sought to block the president’s ability to transfer up to $6.7 billion in prior appropriations, mainly for Pentagon military construction and drug-interdiction accounts and a smaller amount from Treasury asset seizures, to border wall construction. 

Various interest groups have also tied up the move in several court proceedings, though the Supreme Court ruled in July that the president could tap $2.5 billion in prior appropriations for Pentagon counter-drug programs. A federal judge in California is also expected to rule soon on a lawsuit filed by House Democrats, several states and the Sierra Club on whether the administration can continue using $3.6 billion in military construction funds for wall-building.

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Negotiators were also still trying to work out an agreement on how much new funding for a border wall or barriers would be included.

The amount of new spending for the wall in fiscal 2020 has also been in dispute, with the White House requesting as much as $8.6 billion, or more than six times above fiscal 2019 appropriations. Negotiators have been working with the $1.375 billion approved last year as the ceiling in the current negotiations, which could allow Democrats to walk away with a win.

Sources close to the talks said in addition to wall funding, quite a few other issues remained unresolved, and it did not appear likely that an agreement would be reached Monday. “Probably the next few days,” Shelby said.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said the talks weren’t going as quickly as she’d hoped and that it was unlikely the House would vote this week on any spending bills.

Lowey said certain GOP negotiators aren’t providing “cooperation” on some issues.

“There has to be more give-and-take and more participation on the part of some members, who are not as involved and not as experienced,” she said, without elaborating.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., added that part of the problem was Republicans needing White House signoff before making decisions. “What’s taking so long is that everything that’s talked about then has to go to the White House and they say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” she said.

‘Cadillac’ tax, extenders and more

Congressional leaders are negotiating the inclusion of extensions of tax and health care provisions and several other key legislative authorizations in a year-end spending package as appropriations leaders try to reach agreement on the spending bills.

One measure Democrats have put on the table for inclusion is repeal of the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans, according to a congressional aide. The tax, imposed as an offset to the 2010 health care law, is scheduled to take effect in 2022 after being delayed twice past its original 2018 start-date. Both businesses and unions oppose the tax and the House passed a measure in July that would repeal it permanently on a 419-6 vote.

In addition to tax breaks and health care extenders, non-appropriations items on the table include reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, federally backed flood insurance, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program and a 2014 law allowing satellite television companies to provide broadcast content to underserved communities, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.

Federal aid to a major pension plan for retired coal miners that is facing insolvency as well as provisions to allow retired miners to keep their health insurance is also under consideration. McConnell backs that effort, which faces greater urgency due to several recent coal company bankruptcies.

And the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees are pushing for leaders to include draft legislation they are working to finalize that would, among other things, crack down on surprise out-of-network medical bills, raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 and provide nearly $20 billion for community health centers, a source said. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Monday the administration backs that tentative agreement, which was announced over the weekend.

Even so, lawmakers were clearly making some headway in finalizing spending legislation. “With the exception of a few rider-type discussions, we’re done,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., referring to negotiations on a Labor-HHS-Education bill that his subcommittee controls.

Blunt declined to elaborate on the remaining sticking points. But later on Monday, Blunt appeared optimistic that perhaps all 12 of the remaining spending bills could get done by the Dec. 20 deadline.

“I’m beginning to think we might,” he said. “I would have always thought there would have to be some kind of [continuing resolution], but maybe. There’s a lot of good faith trying to go in and get these done.”

Jennifer Shutt, Doug Sword, Mary Ellen McIntire and David Lerman contributed to this report.