Trump border fight throws curveball into shutdown prospects

Lawmakers are bracing for a fierce fight over President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation 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 CapitoHillicon Valley: Facebook to remove mentions of potential whistleblower's name | House Dems demand FCC action over leak of location data | Dem presses regulators to secure health care data Senators introduce bill to create 'parity' among broadband programs Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump 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 MurphyOvernight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward Senate Democrat: Colleague was working on fantasy football trade instead of listening to Schumer 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 ShelbyOn The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule Lawmakers aim for agreement on top-line spending by next week 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 Hoyer Hoyer calls GOP efforts to out whistleblower 'despicable' Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate 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 ThuneSenate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocratic senators introduce bill to push ICE to stop 'overuse' of solitary confinement Pentagon watchdog declines to investigate hold on Ukraine aid Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action 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 PelosiTrump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Jordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' USMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say 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.