Senators voice confusion over Trump's border wall position

In the crucial days before a deadline for funding the government, senators on Capitol Hill are expressing confusion over the White House's position on including border wall funding in a spending bill.

“We're all trying to interpret the comments made by Sarah Sanders," Democratic Maryland Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE said Tuesday of the White House press secretary.

Sanders on Fox News earlier in the day said there are “other ways to get to that $5 billion” that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE has requested be included in a spending bill under negotiation. She later said during a press briefing that the president had asked all Cabinet agencies to find additional funds that could be used to build his wall, as an alternative option.

Democratic Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Democrat: Trump Mexico tariff threat 'hopefully' a breaking point for GOP MORE (Del.) - a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee - said he needed more details on the White House plan but warned that the president doesn’t have the authority to move billions of dollars around.

“The executive branch has re-programming flexibility in almost every operational area – there’s a process - but it's not billions of dollars,” Coons told reporters.

The search for other options by the White House signaled a change from Trump's earlier threat to congressional Democrats that he would take credit for shutting down part of the government if it was over his border funding demands. Democrats have resisted pledging $5 billion in the bill specifically to the border wall.

In little more than two weeks Democrats will take majority control of the House - and at least one GOP senator believes that is why Trump is shifting his approach to a government shutdown.

“We are getting down to the end - it's not going to get any better the closer to December 31 because the House swings from Republican to Democrat. That strengthens the Democrats' hands after the first of the year,” GOP Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa MORE (S.D.) said.

Trump doesn't have complete support in his own party, either. Not all GOP lawmakers share the president’s desire to build a concrete wall to protect the southern border, outgoing GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeDemocrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (Ariz.) told reporters.

“Obviously we need better border security - the notion of a wall as its perceived just was never that important really to the party – because it's not that important to border security – we need barriers but not the wall as he talks about,” said Flake, who has become a harsh Republican critic of Trump.

Other Democratic senators, including Coons and Van Hollen, slammed Trump for looking to taxpayer money for his border wall after initially promising during his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, saying that was another shift in position by Trump.

Asked what happened to that promise, Flake responded, “That's what we're all wondering – not paying for the wall is helping the president keep his campaign promise not break it.”

Coons said overall that there is "concern widespread among my colleagues that this fight over potential shutdown over a border wall is more about optics than substance."

— Molly K. Hooper