The Looming Shutdown Showdown

The Sept. 30 appropriations deadline is fast approaching, and Trump has threatened to shut down the government if lawmakers don't include funding for a border wall.

President Trump reviews border-wall prototypes March 13 in San Diego.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Aug. 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

At the end of July, President Trump said he’d be willing to shut down the government if Democrats in Congress refused to vote to fund a wall on the southern border, his top priority during the presidential campaign.

Yet no Democrat has submitted to the threat, knowing that they have the votes in the Senate to block funding for it. This week, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, turned to sarcasm when asked about proposed spending for the border wall.

“I’m all for it because Mexico is going to pay for it anyway,” Leahy told National Journal. “Donald Trump would never lie. And he has assured us Mexico will pay for it. So just open the account and whatever amount of money they put in, build it.”

The House and Senate failures earlier this year to pass immigration bills have left the issue raw. Trump still wants to build the wall; Democrats are still seeking a permanent legal status for immigrants who came to the country illegally as children but were granted reprieve by the Obama administration. Many expect the issue to flare up in the form of funding in the appropriations process, which must be completed by the end of September. Still, Republicans control Congress, and have pledged they will avert a government shutdown about a month before the midterm elections.

“We’re not going to shut down the government,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip. “The speaker [Paul Ryan] and the majority leader [Mitch McConnell] have been talking to the president about that and trying to accomplish his goal, which we all share, but to do it in a way that doesn’t require that sort of drama.”

It is unclear, however, what exactly the president’s goal is. Earlier this year, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion federal spending bill, providing $1.6 billion for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, but nothing for constructing the kind of wall that Trump has been advocating. Trump begrudgingly signed the legislation after threatening a veto over the wall being “not fully funded.”

It’s also unclear how much Republicans on Capitol Hill will push for during this fall’s negotiations and how much the administration wants. House Republicans have passed a measure out of committee approving $5 billion for border-wall construction, as Trump personally requested of appropriators during a White House meeting earlier this summer. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have put forward just $1.6 billion—the same figure the White House asked for in its budget this year to construct 65 miles of border wall in south Texas.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said senators are waiting for the House to reconvene after Labor Day to iron out those differences, as well as many others in the appropriations process.

“Our staff’s already talking,” Shelby said. “When they get back ... we’ll try to see if we can resolve some of those differences.”

Similarly, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said she has been talking to her House counterpart, Rep. Kevin Yoder, and they intend to let the legislative process play out to see where they land.

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said he doubted that senators on the panel in charge of homeland-security spending would support shutting down the government over the wall.

“Everybody is going to have to decide, if we can’t pass that bill before the election, are we willing just to continue current year spending for a while or do you want to shut down that part of the government,” he asked.

Complicating the matter are Trump’s mixed messages on the issue. The border wall was Trump’s top priority on the campaign trail, where he led stadiums of supporters with the chant, “build the wall!” Beyond the discrepancy in funding numbers, he has been unclear about how far he would take the fight: Though he has advocated a potential government shutdown to deliver on his promise, he also has mused that a shutdown should only happen after the November midterm elections, in which House Republicans are on defense in dozens of districts.

That leaves open the possibility that Congress would only have time to pass a few, or maybe even none, of their appropriations bills and would have to rely on a short-term appropriations measure to get through the elections. Ryan predicted this would happen at a press conference last month. That path would leave the issue of immigration to be settled by a lame-duck Congress with less to lose, but how that Congress would deal with it is highly variable.

There is recent precedent for shutdowns over immigration issues. In 2015, House Republicans added language to a funding bill attempting to disallow President Obama from implementing his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Congress was ultimately unable to pass a Homeland Security funding bill, leading to a temporary partial shutdown of the agency. And in January, Democratic senators shut down the government for a couple days in a failed attempt to pressure Republicans to extend the DACA program, which the Trump administration rescinded and fought in court.

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