Trump, Pelosi take hard line on border wall funds ahead of lame-duck session
President Donald Trump hedged Wednesday when asked whether he would be willing to provoke a government shutdown in the weeks ahead to extract billions of dollars for a border wall from Congress before Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January.
“I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. No, I can’t commit to that, but it’s possible,” Trump said at a news conference.
Until the new Congress is sworn in, Republicans are still operating with a slim two-seat majority in the Senate and an advantage of more than 40 seats in the House. The GOP will have at least two additional Senate seats in January after Tuesday’s elections, but Democrats are lined up to have a significant majority in the lower chamber.
“Yes, we have a better situation in the Senate in the new year, but we have a worse situation in the House,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Congressional leaders on both sides acknowledge they have much on their agenda for their lame-duck session and not a whole lot of time to get it all done.
“I think it will be a relatively lively lame duck,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told The Associated Press last month. “Sometimes they just sort of go to sleep after the election. But we have too much left to do to have a quiet lame duck.”
One issue that will need to be dealt with one way or another is keeping the whole government open past Dec. 7. Lawmakers already passed about half of the appropriation bills they need to fund the government for 2019, but other departments—including Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, and Justice—are due to run out of money unless new funding bills are passed.
President Trump has demanded the Homeland Security budget include funds for a southern border wall, one of his signature campaign promises. Trump has repeatedly threatened to shut down the government over border security, but Republican leaders convinced him to delay that fight until after the midterm elections.
“We’re certainly going to try help the president achieve what he’d like to do with the wall and border security,” McConnell said at a news conference Wednesday.
Trump has spoken recently of seeking full funding for the wall, but the White House only requested $1.6 billion for 2019, which is what the Senate version of the DHS appropriations bill contains. The House version includes $5 billion, but Trump has indicated he wants even more.
“We need the money to build the wall — the whole wall — not pieces of it all over. And we are doing it,” he told reporters Wednesday.
Despite Trump’s confidence, Democrats believe their victories in the House lend them additional leverage in negotiations.
(If you are viewing on a mobile app, click here to take the poll.)
“Why would we compromise on the wall now?” House Minority Leader and probable future Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, though she added there are bipartisan ways to secure the border she supports.
The two sides have come close to a deal before involving the border wall and the so-called Dreamers who were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump attempted to end that program by executive order, but the issue remains mired in lawsuits.
Earlier this year, according to The Washington Post, the White House proposed three years of protection for the 700,000 already enrolled in the DACA program in exchange for $25 billion for the wall. Democrats countered with a plan that would have allowed a pathway to citizenship for the broader dreamer population of 1.8 million immigrants. Trump rejected that deal unless it also included controversial changes to legal immigration programs.
With the election behind them, experts say neither side has much to lose in the short-term from drawing a line in the sand over the wall.
“Democrats have no incentive to agree to funding that they have steadfastly oppose except in the context of a broader immigration policy agreement,” said Richard Arenberg, who worked on Capitol Hill for decades and co-authored “Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate.”. “They will doubt that Republicans will be willing to cause a shutdown.”
Republicans will not be on a ballot again until 2020, and Trump will be up for re-election with them then so the political environment will be very different.
“They’ve already lost the House. It’s all going to be tied back to a presidential election anyway,” O’Connell said.
Past shutdowns suggest there might be longer-term consequences for both parties.
“These things have a way of spinning out of control and those who think they are going to benefit from them often don’t,” said Robert Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor at Louisiana State University.
This is especially true for Democrats who are trying to convince the public they can be the adults in the room if they are given power.
“Better to cut a deal with Trump and solve DACA that engineer or participate in causing a shutdown. Giving Trump the money for his wall is awful, especially if Democrats get nothing in return,” Mann said. “But supporting a shutdown is worse and could make it much harder to get anything done in 2019.”
Trump intimated Wednesday he has no desire to revisit the DACA issue as long as litigation over his attempts to end the program is ongoing. A federal appeals court Thursday ruled the administration must continue the program, but the Department of Justice has asked the Supreme Court to fast-track three cases involving DACA.
“I think we could really do something having to do with DACA,” Trump said Wednesday. “And what really happened with DACA — we could have done some pretty good work on DACA. But a judge ruled that DACA was okay. Had the judge not ruled that way, I think we would have made a deal. Once the judge ruled that way, the Democrats didn’t want to talk anymore. So, we’ll see how it works out at the Supreme Court.”
Beyond the basic task of keeping the government open, lawmakers are also racing to craft a compromise on the five-year farm bill, which has been stalled in conference as House and Senate staff struggle to reconcile differences between the versions they passed. Agriculture groups fear the months of work already done on the bill will be tossed aside if it is not passed before power changes hands in the House in January, leading to further delays.
“If you’re the Republicans, you want to get any possible big-ticket item through now and try to navigate this gauntlet versus when Nancy Pelosi is going to have the gavel in her hand,” O’Connell said.
The primary sticking point on that bill is work requirements for those receiving food stamps, something House conservatives and the president have demanded but Senate Democrats adamantly oppose.
Other legislation that has languished amid conflicts between the two chambers could find its way onto the docket, including a criminal justice reform bill championed by Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has championed and an effort to overhaul Capitol Hill’s handling of sexual harassment complaints. Senate Republicans aim to advance numerous judicial and political nominations before the end of the year too.
One thing that seems almost certain to fall by the wayside is the middle-class tax cut President Trump claimed was imminent last month. No legislative text has been produced, and Trump acknowledged Wednesday he does not have the votes to pass it anyway.
Researchers at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center analyzed more than 52,000 roll call votes from 1939 to 2014 to determine whether lawmakers behave differently during lame-duck sessions. In a 2016 report, research fellows Christopher Koopman, Mathew Mitchell, and Emily Hamilton found few reasons to expect lawmakers to find common ground on contentious issues in the weeks ahead.
“During a lame-duck session, members are slightly less likely to side with their own parties and less likely to vote at all,” they wrote. “These patterns persist in very lame duck sessions—those that take place following the loss o