Lawmakers pushed toward votes Wednesday on a sweeping spending bill that includes a compromise on border security, grappling with a series of last-minute disputes two days ahead of a government shutdown deadline.
President Donald Trump appeared to be open to signing the legislation – which includes far less funding than he has sought for construction of barriers along the southern border – but he said he was waiting to see the final package before making a decision. If Trump does not sign a bill by Friday at midnight, another partial government shutdown will ensue.
“We haven’t gotten it yet. We’ll be getting it and we’ll be looking for land mines” in the legislation, Trump told reporters at the White House.
“I don’t want to see a shutdown. A shutdown would be a terrible thing,” he said. Trump’s demands for money for his border wall led to the record-long 35-day partial government shutdown that ended late last month.
Bipartisan negotiators struck a compromise late Monday that includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new fences along the border, short of the $5.7 billion Trump had sought for 234 miles of steel walls.
According to a document outlining some details of the deal, viewed by The Washington Post, the bill would provide a total of $49.4 billion for the Homeland Security Department for the 2019 budget year, an increase of $1.7 billion above 2018 levels. The legislation also includes policy provisions specifying that members of Congress cannot be barred from accessing any facility housing children, and it contains language aimed at making it easier for separated children to reunite with family members in the U.S.
A White House official told The Post on Wednesday morning that Trump sees signing the legislation, if passed by Congress, as the way to avoid another shutdown. But Trump would also likely pursue an executive order to reallocate additional federal funds to barrier projects, the official said, in addition to signing legislation. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Trump said Wednesday that “We have options that most people don’t understand” for building the wall.
Conservative lawmakers said Trump must take those steps in order to satisfy the demands of his base.
“If he signed the bill, based on what has reported and suggested is in the bill, and did nothing else, it would be political suicide,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “If he signed the bill, based on the way that we believe the bill to be, and takes other methods to obtain funding for additional border security measures, then I think there’s very little political liability from conservatives.”
But Democrats made clear that they would object to efforts by the administration to reallocate funding appropriated by Congress, although some Republicans argued that the administration could do so without congressional assent.
On Capitol Hill, the debate moved beyond immigration to disagreements over whether to use the bill to provide back pay to federal contractors caught in the middle of the last government shutdown, as well as whether to include an extension of the federal Violence Against Women Act.
There was also concern among some liberal Democrats over concessions made regarding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and other issues, though the opposition did not appear widespread enough to threaten House passage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday that she was confident lawmakers could come to terms on the outstanding issues.
“We have to. We have to. I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Pelosi said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., offered a tepid endorsement for the framework of the deal, but he said he had to see the bill before he’d back it.
“You cannot get everything you request . . . so not everyone is going to be happy . . . but does it put a framework in to (protect) the border? That’s what I’ll be looking at,” McCarthy said.
The legislation was expected to be finalized later Wednesday, with votes expected in the House on Thursday. The Senate was expected to follow, though the order of votes could change.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said Democrats would call administration officials to testify on Capitol Hill if they start moving money around in a way that violates the constitutional separation of powers.
“We’re going to respect Article One of the Constitution here and do our job which is to make sure that we appropriate funding to these agencies, and if they don’t, they can expect to be up here quite a bit,” Aguilar said.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic caucus, told reporters Wednesday morning that he expects a House vote on the legislation “tomorrow afternoon or thereafter” and predicted “the overwhelming majority” of House Democrats would support it.
Among the outstanding issues in the sweeping legislation is a push by some Democrats to add language that would provide back pay to federal contractors. Some 800,000 federal workers, and tens of thousands of contractors, went without pay during the 35-day shutdown, and crucial services at airports, food inspection sites, the Internal Revenue Service and elsewhere were jeopardized. Under a law signed by Trump, workers but not contractors are receiving back pay.
“Thousands of federal contractors have not been reimbursed from the 35-day shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday. “This issue is hanging in the balance. . . . It’s just not fair.”
But Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., suggested inclusion of a back-pay provision for contractors could be a deal-breaker for Trump. “I’ve been told the president won’t sign that,” Blunt told reporters.
The dispute over the Violence Against Women Act centered on whether to use the spending bill to extend it, which some Democrats feared would remove the impetus to pass a broader stand-alone bill in the works. Funding for the legislation is scheduled to expire Friday.
During remarks Wednesday on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called opposition to including a VAWA extension a “cynical ploy my Democratic colleagues may be trying to pull,” and advocated putting a seven-month extension in the spending bill.
Another flash point was the question of how many detention beds can be maintained by ICE.
The deal reached Monday omits a strict new cap Democrats had sought on immigrants detained within the United States – as opposed to at the border. At the same time, it sets funding for the average number of detention beds maintained by ICE at 45,274, an increase from levels funded in the 2018 budget. It would include $23 billion in funding for ICE and the Customs and Border Protection agency, a figure Trump has begun touting.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., was among the liberal Democrats voicing disapproval of those provisions.
“We actually ended up with more appropriated beds,” she said, adding that she is inclined to oppose the bill, but might have to “hold her nose” and vote for it.
Jayapal added that the Congressional Progressive Caucus is not trying to derail the legislation.
“We’re not trying to kill this bill,” she said.
During a Democratic caucus meeting Wednesday morning, Pelosi and Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.) sought to build support for the legislation by talking up provisions favorable to Democrats and emphasizing Trump didn’t get the wall funding he wanted, according to people in the room.
Coming out of the meeting, Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) said he would support the legislation and predicted it would pass with just enough votes from Republicans and Democrats.
Asked about opposition from liberal Democrats, Meeks said: “When you strike a deal, you get some things that you want, and you get some things that you don’t like. A majority of our members will vote for it.”
In voicing his support for the bill, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., emphasized what it doesn’t include.
“We accomplished what we set out to accomplish,” he said. “We’re not going to get a wall from sea to shining sea.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Erica Werner, John Wagner, Mike DeBonis