Trump Threatens to Bust Border Deal as Shutdown Deadline Nears

(Bloomberg) -- Congress has only a few days left to come up with an agreement on border security spending to prevent a government shutdown and may yet see the process upended once President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Trump in recent days has repeatedly declared the negotiations a waste of time and said Feb. 1 that his speech to a joint session of Congress would reveal more of his own plans. He suggested that might include a politically and legally fraught emergency declaration to circumvent Congress to begin building a border wall.

While the government has funding to keep operating until Feb. 15, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the 17 Republicans and Democrats on a House-Senate conference committee need to wrap up their work by Friday to allow time to vote on any plan to resolve the stalemate. While staff members talked over the weekend and on Monday, real progress isn’t expected until after party meetings on Tuesday.

When the talks began last week, Democrats offered no new money for border barriers and Republicans were still seeking $5.7 billion for a wall. Democrats suggested an openness to border fencing, but not the wall Trump made a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. For lawmakers in the talks, Trump and Pelosi are proving the biggest obstacles to a compromise.

Shutdown Blame

Some Republicans accused Democrats of being inflexible given that they’d supported funding for new fencing in the past. “They are moving in the wrong direction by now saying zero funding,” said Georgia Representative Tom Graves, who serves on the conference committee. “If there’s another shutdown, it lies at the feet of Nancy Pelosi.”

Trump told reporters on Friday there’s a “good chance” he’ll declare a national emergency to bypass Congress and tap existing sources of money to build a wall if lawmakers don’t give into his demands. He’s suggested the declaration could come as early as his State of the Union speech, and that another government shutdown to force the issue remained a possibility.

“I don’t take anything off the table,” Trump said in an interview with CBS news broadcast Sunday. Pelosi “can keep playing her games, but we will win.”

At the same time, White House aides said the president’s State of the Union speech would implore Congress to compromise on issues including immigration and “bridge old divisions.”

If lawmakers reach a deal, it could include Democrats agreeing to miles of new border fencing. It remains unclear if Trump would accept that offer. While he’s described new and replacement fencing as a “wall,” and U.S. troops have been laying miles of concertina wire near the border, he’s also said fencing is not sufficient.

Negotiators then would also need to sort out how to pay for the extra barriers, including whether to cut other programs or use budget gimmicks to make up the difference. They’ll also need to sort out other fiscal disputes such as whether to send more disaster aid to hurricane-battered Puerto Rico, which Trump has opposed.

House Republican negotiators Kay Granger of Texas, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi joined Democratic negotiator Henry Cuellar of Texas on a tour of border conditions in McAllen, Texas, on Sunday, and the group will be in El Paso and San Diego Monday, according to Granger’s spokeswoman Sarah Flaim.

There’s already a physical barrier on about 654 miles (1,050 km) of the U.S.-Mexico border -- about half of which is fencing to deter pedestrians, with the other half covered by vehicle barriers. The Department of Homeland Security still has 46 miles of unfinished fencing that was authorized under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and hasn’t yet been built. Under the 2018 spending bill, 33 miles of the remaining fence was funded, leaving 13 miles called for in 2006 left to fund.

Natural Obstacles

Much of the rest of the 2,000-mile border, especially in Texas, follows natural obstacles in mountainous areas or the Rio Grande River. The 2016 Republican platform called for building a wall on the entire southern border, and Trump’s demands have shifted over the past three years, most recently acknowledging that the wall wouldn’t have to cover areas where there’s a natural barrier. He’s also said the wall could be “steel slats” instead of concrete, and in December tweeted an image of a “Steel Slat Barrier.”

The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, said he’s hopeful a deal can be reached because Republicans seem willing to disregard Trump’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere about the conference committee being a waste of time. 

“People are paying less and less attention to the tweets,” Leahy said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week said he wants congressional negotiators to find common ground, underscoring the need to prevent another shutdown and stop Trump seeing the need for an emergency declaration.

‘Whatever Works’

“I’m for whatever works that prevents the level of dysfunction we’ve seen on full display here in the last month and also doesn’t bring about a view on the president’s part that he needs to declare a national emergency,” McConnell told reporters.

Under a 1976 law, Trump can declare a national emergency if he specifies the reason to Congress. Congress could, in turn, vote to disapprove such a declaration, though the president has the ability to veto such a resolution.

Democrats likely would file suit over any such declaration.

Senate Republican leaders are wary of creating a public display of party disunity over Trump’s possible move toward an emergency declaration. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, an adviser to McConnell, said that if Trump declares an emergency, any lawmaker could demand a vote to overturn his decision.

Cornyn said that Trump has been personally warned that such a divisive vote would be inevitable if he declares an emergency.

Court Challenge

Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Sunday on CNN that while Trump has the power to declare an emergency, it would likely have to be decided by the courts.

A CBS News poll released Sunday found two-thirds of Americans oppose Trump declaring a national emergency in order to get the wall built, and most survey respondents -- 73 percent -- said they want Trump to continue negotiating while keeping the government.

In several votes in recent weeks, Republicans have shown their independence from the president, suggesting Trump could lose more backing if he pushes toward another shutdown.

Eleven Senate Republicans sided with Democrats on a proposal designed to force the Treasury Department to keep sanctions on Russian companies linked to oligarch Oleg Deripaska. And 43 Republicans joined Democrats in a 68-23 vote advancing a plan that would urge the U.S. to avoid any “precipitous withdrawal” from Syria or Afghanistan, as Trump seeks to draw down troops.

At the tail end of the 35-day shutdown, six Senate Republicans voted with Democrats on proposal to reopen the government until Feb. 8 to allow more time to negotiate a border compromise, despite heavy pressure to vote on a rival plan aligned with Trump’s $5.7 billion “wall” request. Both proposals were blocked before agreement the following day on terms for the short-term reopening.

If the border talks fail, lawmakers said Congress won’t be able to get much else accomplished.

“If we can’t arrive at a deal over that, it becomes hard to see how you arrive at a deal over a national infrastructure package or drug pricing or things of that nature where the country needs us to come together and find a common sense solution,” said Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

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