White House backing off $8.6 billion demand for border wall funding

The most immediate decision to make is how long a second temporary funding bill should last

A section of the border wall stretches through the “Rio Grande Valley Sector” of the Texas border in August. The Trump administration is backing off its demand for spending on the fiscal 2020 border wall. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call)

The Trump administration is backing off its demand for $8.6 billion in fiscal 2020 border wall spending in negotiations with top congressional leaders and appropriators, according to a source familiar with the talks.

That’s not just a recognition of reality — Congress hasn’t appropriated more than $1.375 billion for the wall in each of the past two fiscal years. It also reflects a realization that the administration risks losing a substantial boost in military spending and other GOP priorities if current stopgap funds end up extended for the entire fiscal year.

[Appropriations talks rejuvenated as possible shutdown looms]

“The bazaar is open, no reasonable offer refused. It’s time for the Hill to make them a proposal,” the source said.

As recently as Oct. 29, administration officials communicated to congressional staff that the White House was sticking by its $8.6 billion wall request, split into two parts: $5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, and another $3.6 billion in Pentagon base construction accounts. On top of the wall generally being a political lightning rod on the left, Democrats argued funding the request would shortchange domestic spending priorities.

Separately, a top administration official told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that President Donald Trump doesn’t want to see a partial government shutdown starting Nov. 22, when the current stopgap funding law expires. However, White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland stressed that a condition of support for any continuing resolution would be no strings attached to the administration’s plans to transfer military funds to the wall project.

Meanwhile, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday that staff are working to set up a meeting next Tuesday or Wednesday with House Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., to see if they can “ratchet up” negotiations to get the fiscal 2020 spending bills done before January.

Shelby said he didn’t have a specific border wall proposal to present to Democrats during that meeting, but he expected the topic would come up.

The wall dispute is “the big impediment” to getting everything else done, Shelby said.

The most immediate decision to make is how long a second temporary funding bill should last.

Shelby previously floated the idea that the next continuing resolution would run through February or March. But Shelby said Tuesday he supports the idea Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., discussed to extend current funding into mid- or late-December with the goal of wrapping up all the appropriations bills during that window.

“If the speaker and the Republican leadership in the House and [Senate Minority Leader Charles E.] Schumer and McConnell agree we’re going to work together and we’re going to put all of our things aside, their Dec. 31 thing makes sense. But only if we can put it together,” Shelby told reporters.

The wall funding issue is the biggest hurdle to compromise on subcommittee allocations for the 12 spending bills. But there are various other factors to consider as well, not least of which is House Democrats’ bills overall are nearly $20 billion above the Senate’s on nondefense funding.

While those allocations were set before the July spending caps deal (PL 116-37), the House bills reflect a fair amount of stakeholder involvement and reduced funding levels are certain to cause consternation. But House Democrats also understand the realities of the spending talks. On Tuesday, a group led by Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York, Judy Chu of California and 85 others that advocates for robust 2020 census funds said they could live with the Senate-passed version, which includes about $800 million less than the House proposed.

The Trump administration remains a hurdle to the House and Senate reaching agreement on subcommittee allocations, according to top Democrats.

“The difficult thing is that it’s almost as though the White House either can’t focus or doesn’t want to focus. And I keep saying ‘Well, we’ve got grownups. Why don’t we just do it all and bring it up? And say vote it up or vote it down,’” said Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

Leahy declined to comment on how long he thinks a second continuing resolution should last, saying he “hates” temporary funding bills and “wouldn’t want anything very long.”

For now, Sen. Charles E. Grassley expects Congress will be able to avoid a partial government shutdown just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday that would impact dozens of federal departments and agencies, including the Pentagon.

“I think experience will dictate we don’t have a shutdown” as members have learned shutdowns “don’t accomplish anything,” the Iowa Republican told reporters Tuesday. “I probably explained to you a year ago when we had 35 days of shutdown that a lot of new members don’t know what it’s like, so they’re willing to shut down the government.”

Michael Macagnone and Doug Sword contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.