GOP Leaders Try to Steer Trump Away From Pre-Election Shutdown

(Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with President Donald Trump at the White House Wednesday to discuss how to avoid a politically damaging government shutdown on Oct. 1, a month before elections that will determine control of Congress.

Ryan said before the meeting the leaders planned to discuss Trump’s request for funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which Democrats vigorously oppose. Ryan, in an interview on the Fox News program “Fox & Friends,” said he’d talk with Trump about “how to get this appropriation process back on track” so that Congress passes smaller packages of spending bills.

Trump over the past year has called for a “good” government shutdown to achieve up to $25 billion in border wall funding. He also has vowed never again to sign a 12-part omnibus spending bill like the $1.3 trillion law the White House and Congress negotiated earlier this year to fund the government through September.

A shutdown could keep lawmakers in Washington instead of spending time on the campaign trail ahead of Nov. 6 elections. The GOP is trying to keep control of both chambers as polls suggest Democrats have a chance of gaining a majority in the House.

McConnell said in a statement after the meeting that it was “routine” and designed to “go over the legislative agenda.” A spokeswoman for Ryan, asked about what was discussed, pointed to McConnell’s statement.

Wall Battle

The border wall remains the biggest sticking point that could trigger a shutdown, because Senate Democrats’ support is needed to reach the 60 votes needed to enact spending bills. Republicans control the chamber with a slim 51-49 majority. The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, is willing to provide $1.6 billion for the wall, while the House has included $5 billion, an amount worked out with White House staff but denounced by Democrats.

For months, Ryan of Wisconsin and McConnell of Kentucky have been working to avoid a shutdown by breaking up the annual appropriations bills into smaller “minibus” bills to meet the president’s opposition to a large package. Their plan also aims to push the border wall fight into November at the earliest.

“We’re trying to break it up into pieces,” Ryan said.

McConnell said on the Senate floor, "If we can keep it up, we’ll soon take four more big steps toward our goal; funding the federal government the right way and avoiding another omnibus."

One of the spending bills combines funding for the departments of Energy and Veterans Affairs as well as for the legislative branch, Army Corps of Engineers and military construction. Competing versions have passed both houses, but it has become hung up over veterans’ funding.

Spending for Veterans

Democrats want to raise the overall 2019 spending cap to accommodate new veterans’ spending while Republicans want to make cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for the increase. The Senate is expected to resolve its differences over August to allow the House to approve the final package after it returns from recess Sept. 4.

A second minibus bill before the Senate combines funding for the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Treasury as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and financial regulatory agencies. Congress will also have to wait until September to finish this package due to the House recess.

The Senate also plans to vote on a bill combining funding for the departments of Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services in August. So far the White House hasn’t approved this part of the plan, lawmakers have said.

Left out of the plans is the bill funding the department of Homeland Security, which would fund the disputed border wall.

Any of the three funding bills could carry a short-term resolution keeping Homeland Security operating temporarily until after the Nov. 8 election, when a shutdown fight over just that department could play out.

Bipartisan Deal

Representative Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican who authored the House bill providing $5 billion for the wall, said he doesn’t see a shutdown happening over it. 

“I’m sure we can come to a bipartisan agreement,” Yoder said. “The Senate already has some wall money in its bill so the concept has already been agreed to.” 

The wild card remains Trump. Stan Collender, a longtime former congressional budget aide, warned in a column on his blog that the danger is real.

Trump “wants Congress to appropriate the full amount for the wall he wants to build between the U.S. and Mexico, and he very likely sees the GOP leadership’s strong desire to get its members out-of-town as soon as possible as increased leverage to get that," he wrote.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.