Lawmakers defied President Donald Trump by excluding many of his demands in an emerging government spending bill. But the measure is not a complete loss for the commander in chief despite the late-game lobbying needed to secure his always tenuous support.
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, as lawmakers were saying final negotiations were underway, Trump’s signature was not yet certain. White House aides had gone silent on the matter, usually a sign the boss is unhappy. But the president signed off on the omnibus spending deal during an afternoon meeting with Speaker Paul D. Ryan, according to a Republican leadership source familiar with the meeting.
“They had a good conversation about the wins delivered for the president, and he is supportive of the bill,” the source said. A senior White House official, when pressed, did not dispute that characterization of Trump’s stance after the Ryan meeting.
Trump had ample reasons to be unhappy. Perhaps that’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped out of a meeting to take a call from the president about the spending deal, according to Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker. Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman laughed when a reporter informed him Trump needed to be talked into supporting the measure.
From funding for his proposed Southern border wall, to cutting off cash for so-called sanctuary cities, to blocking federal dollars for a massive transit project connecting New Jersey to his native New York City, to new beds for undocumented immigrants, to hiring additional Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents, Congress did not include many of the presidential asks.
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Distractor in chief
As the pact was being finalized, the White House kept making news on a number of other fronts that had little to do with the spending debate.
There was Trump’s lashing out Sunday — by name, in an escalation — at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
There was his unwillingness to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of that country being singled out for a nerve gas attack on British soil and a drumbeat of reports of Russian election meddling.
There’s the daily West Wing firing watch as the president stews over additional staff changes that he all but guaranteed on two occasions last week.
There’s his eagerness to hit the campaign trail, as he indicated Tuesday night at a National Republican Congressional Committee dinner, saying he plans to tether Democratic congressional candidates to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Trump and his team are dealing with allegations of affairs with and payoffs to an adult film star and a Playboy model.
And there’s Trump’s deep interest in cable news, on display many mornings in his agitated tweets, which include mini-transcripts of comments made by conservative backers on Fox News, his network of choice, complete with misspellings of the special counsel’s title.
“Special Council is told to find crimes, whether a crime exists or not. I was opposed to the selection of Mueller to be Special Council. I am still opposed to it. I think President Trump was right when he said there never should have been a Special Council appointed because.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
...there was no probable cause for believing that there was any crime, collusion or otherwise, or obstruction of justice!” So stated by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
All of those matters, as lawmakers insisted they were finalizing the spending deal, soaked up hours of Trump’s time — and that of his staff.
Win some, lose some
As the president again plunged his White House into crisis-management mode, many of his omnibus demands were shrunk or cast aside.
“Sure,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, when asked Wednesday if there were a number of provisions in the spending deal that Trump will oppose. “But there are going to be things in there I don’t like, too.”
The deal excludes several immigration-related items Trump advocated, but Graham suggested lawmakers share that blame: “We had a chance to do some real serious immigration reform and let it pass. To expect it to be done in the omnibus is just not realistic.”
Watch: Emerging Omnibus Plan Lacking Some Big-Ticket Trump Asks
Trump got $1.6 billion — a down payment — for his proposed border barrier. But he also lost, since those monies will only cover 33 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile border, and the omnibus funds may only be used for “fencing” rather than the concrete wall that Trump campaigned on.
That compares to the $25 billion the president had at one point hoped for.
Another setback was the absence of strangling federal funding to sanctuary cities, an issue so important to Trump he had his White House aides organize a Tuesday event with immigration hard-liners.
“Sanctuary cities release thousands of criminal aliens out of our prisons and jails and back into our communities,” he said Tuesday.
A senior White House official told Roll Call recently that Trump had not ruled out vetoing any federal spending that contains federal funding for the Gateway tunnel project that would boost rail connectivity between New York and New Jersey. The same official stressed that the president “definitely still opposes that.”
On one hand, there is less federal funding for the project than it initially appeared the two states’ delegations would secure, and the project will have to compete with other initiatives for federal dollars. On the other hand, Trump lost by not cutting off all federal funding sources.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday suggested the president would rather put off the matter until an infrastructure bill moves.
Lots to like
Another senior GOP leadership aide said he does not “agree with the framing” of the premise that the bill reflects lawmakers ignoring the president. He said there was “lots for the Trump administration to like in this bill.” And Graham, when asked if he was worried Trump might veto the measure, replied: “Oh, I really don’t think so.”
The House GOP aide characterized forcing Gateway to compete for federal monies as a victory. Also a win: the border wall allotment, which the aide said would erect some kind of structure along “more miles than the White House request for fiscal 2018.”
The aide also noted the omnibus deal includes the so-called Fix NICS legislation aimed at bolstering the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used by gun vendors to ensure a person is qualified to buy a firearm; the White House supports it.
There is also a significant amount of money to combat the opioid epidemic, the GOP aide said. On Monday, Trump went to New Hampshire where he vowed his administration will reverse the sharp rise in recent years in opioid-related deaths.
Sen. John Kennedy also said he was not expecting a veto. The Louisiana Republican blamed the process rather than the president for what’s in and not in the bill, saying, “I’m told, ‘Well, this is the way it’s done up here.’ … Well, as far as I’m concerned, the way it’s done sucks.”
But as GOP members and aides tried to knock down the notion that Trump lost more than he won in the omnibus deal, Democratic leaders seemed more than satisfied.
“We're feeling very good about this,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said. “We've accomplished many, many, many of our goals.”
Pelosi was equally upbeat as the duo left a meeting of congressional leaders to finalize the omnibus deal: “I think we’re going to present to our members something that they can comfortably support.”