Trump border fight throws curveball into shutdown prospects

Lawmakers are bracing for a fierce fight over President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE’s border wall as they work to prevent a shutdown showdown but with no plan on how to avoid it.

Government funding for Trump’s wall and agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become a landmine in spending bill negotiations, with talks late last year leading to a 35-day partial closure that marked the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

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Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoThis week: House jump-starts effort to prevent shutdown Congress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure America is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction MORE (R-W.Va.), who chairs the Department of Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, put her hand to her chin as though she were deep in thought when asked if there was a plan to avoid another battle over the wall and immigration-related issues.

“Hmm, that’s a good question. I think it’s going to be a problem,” she said. “The wall and ICE beds are always a point of contention but, you know, it’s a high priority for many of us and so we’ll just have to power through it.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is one of the 12 individual appropriations bills that need to pass Congress and be signed into law by Oct. 1, or be extended by way of a continuing resolution to buy lawmakers more time.

The DHS bill is emerging as a perennial problem child for negotiators because it touches on politically divisive issues like the wall, asylum and the potential separation of migrant families.

Senators on both sides of the aisle say they have no appetite to repeat the knock-down, drag-out fight similar to last year’s funding bills, which ended with Trump infuriating even traditional allies by declaring a national emergency to get extra wall money.

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But in a year that began with a shutdown, followed by a months-long fight over disaster aid money and then the budget negotiations, appropriators responsible for moving funding legislation through Congress are struggling to find an offramp to avoid another high-stakes fight.

Asked how they'll avoid a repeat headache of last year, Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Senate Democrats to hold the floor to protest inaction on gun violence MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Appropriations Committee, laughed.

“I wish there was a plan,” he said. “We should act like adults and understand that with Democrats in charge of the House there is not going to be money for the wall in this budget and come to that conclusion now rather than, you know, when we’re on the precipice of a shutdown.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySenate Democrats demand wall-free spending allocation Senators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms Congress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure MORE (R-Ala.) acknowledged that the talks around the DHS bill would be “contentious.”

“We would hope not, but we’ll see,” he replied when asked if the border fight was divisive enough to force another shutdown.

The Senate is essentially starting from scratch as it charts a strategy for how to pass its government funding bills.

With Congress out of session until September, the Senate is expected to have its first subcommittee markup on Sept. 12, the first week senators return. Committee leadership has suggested they want to focus on the funding bills for defense, labor and health and human services, and energy and water. If they’re able to package those together, that would allow them to take care of roughly 70 percent of all government funding.

The House, meanwhile, passed 10 out of the 12 bills, but punted on the DHS measure amid divisions between progressives and moderates in the Democratic caucus.

“As you know, we have not passed the Homeland Security bills — one of two bills we haven't passed. And so one of the reasons was because there's a controversial bill,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats headed for a subpoena showdown with White House Election security funds caught in crosshairs of spending debate New storm rises over Kavanaugh MORE (D-Md.) told reporters last week before the House left for the August recess. “And I think you know this agreement does not dispose of wall funding one way or another, as you know, and I am confident there will be an argument about that.”

Hoyer added that with the budget deal clinched he expected House and Senate appropriators to start discussing the specifics of what should be in the final DHS bill, “how much flexibility should the administration have, what, you know, in terms of physical structure and building his wall.”

In an effort to isolate the DHS fight, it’s likely to be one of the last bills the Senate takes up. With lawmakers expected to need a continuing resolution to fund at least part of the government beyond Oct.1, the first day of the next fiscal year, that could give negotiators an additional month or two to try to work out their differences on divisive issues.

The renewed focus on how to fund the government comes after the Supreme Court ruled last week that the Trump administration can start using $2.5 billion in military funds to begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border while litigation plays out. The decision marked a significant victory for the administration that Republicans hope will help lower tensions as they head toward fall funding talks.

Some lawmakers are also hoping that a handshake agreement on avoiding poison pill riders — provisions viewed as non-starters for one party or the other — will help de-escalate the looming fight over DHS funding.

“You’re still going to have all those appropriations bills, but because of this agreement they had on poison pills ... I think it will limit the amount of games that can be played on those bills,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats press for action on election security Prospects for Trump gun deal grow dimmer Trump, lawmakers consider app that would conduct background checks: report MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Pressley on Kavanaugh impeachment: 'Deeply disturbing' that a justice 'could have this many allegations' MORE of Illinois, Thune’s Democratic counterpart, added that he thought a border fight could be “pretty limited” because the non-binding poison pill agreement includes “a veto given to five different people.” 

“It’s unlikely we’ll have that kind of fight,” he added.

Part of the budget agreement cleared by the Senate on Thursday included an understanding that the government funding bills will not have “poison pills, additional new riders, additional CHIMPS [changes in mandatory programs], or other changes in policy or conventions that allow for higher spending levels, or any non-appropriations measures unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the President,” according to a document shared by the office of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Democrats will 'certainly' beat Trump in 2020 Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing MORE (D-Calif.).

But there are already questions about whether congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as the White House, will agree on what qualifies as a poison pill, which could complicate the chances for crafting the funding measures.

“A poison pill is in the eye of the beholder, so I think that makes it hard,” Murphy said.