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Fight over Trump's wall raises odds of 'continuous' stopgap measures
Congress is moving toward passing a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, but some lawmakers are warning it could be the first in a series of stopgap funding measures over the next year to avoid a fight over President Trump's border wall.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top appropriator in the Senate, said it's possible Congress will spend the next fiscal year passing several stopgap bills, known as continuing resolutions (CRs).
"I don't know if we'll end up in a shutdown, but we could end up with continuous CRs," he said. "That could be the endgame."
Lawmakers are hoping to avoid a repeat of December's fight over Trump's border wall, which led to a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.
In the first two years of Trump's presidency, negotiators resolved the wall issue by agreeing to put a very limited amount of funding toward rebuilding pedestrian fencing and reinforcing existing border barriers. That solution allowed both sides to claim victory - Trump could say money was going toward the wall, while Democrats could say nothing new was being built.
But ever since Trump's emergency declaration to build the wall following the last shutdown, the spending fight has spread beyond the lone homeland security bill that deals with border issues.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, fumed after Trump used presidential emergency powers to reprogram military funds toward building the wall. Both chambers rebuked him for the action, passing a bill to overturn his emergency declaration, but they could not muster the support needed to override Trump's veto.
Trump has since redirected $2.5 billion in Pentagon drug trafficking funds, $600 million from the Treasury Department's asset forfeiture fund and, most recently, $3.6 billion in military construction funds.
"The president may not care about our system of checks and balances, but every one of us here should," Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on the Senate floor this month.
With Democrats now demanding safeguards to prevent Trump from using newly appropriated funds for the wall and refusing to backfill military accounts emptied for wall construction, the problem has metastasized from the homeland security bill to other spending measures such as defense and military construction and veterans affairs' bills.
Democrats have also accused the GOP of dipping into a labor, health and education spending bill to provide $5 billion in new funds for the wall. Republicans pulled both that bill and the one covering the State Department and foreign operations as Democrats readied amendments blocking the Trump administration on abortion rules.
The amendments, Republicans said, violated a top-line spending deal reached in the summer prohibiting so-called "poison pills," or controversial policy riders.
Those skirmishes, combined with the larger wall fight, raise serious questions about whether Congress will get any spending bills for fiscal 2020 signed into law.
"I'm not going to faint dead away if we end up with a CR for the whole year," said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), an appropriator.
Both parties, however, dislike the prospect of governing on a continuing resolution, which would freeze spending at current levels and block agencies from initiating new projects.
"None of us would like that," said Shelby. "It's not good for the military. It's not good for the administration. It's not good for the Democrats."
After Democrats blocked a package of bills that included defense and health funding from advancing in the Senate this past week, Leahy suggested that smaller bills unencumbered by controversy - energy and water, transportation, and housing and urban development - could progress.
"My hope is they'll sober up in the Senate, come to a deal, and then we can go to conference - we have the vehicles to get there - and then we'll fight this out," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an appropriator.
But even if some bills make it through the Senate, they might not make it to President Trump's desk.
House Democrats are aiming to finalize all the funding measures at once, waiting for all the bills grouped into minibus packages to be agreed upon before sending them to the White House. That strategy would increase the odds of a complete government shutdown instead of a partial one if no overall agreement is reached on spending legislation.
When the previous partial shutdown began, five of the 12 annual bills had already been signed into law, meaning several federal agencies, including the Defense Department, were unaffected.
"I think the longer you delay, the more political things become, obviously, if we move into the election year itself," said Cole. "So my hope is we can get this all done, if not by Thanksgiving, then certainly by the end of the calendar year."
Despite those challenges, some lawmakers are hopeful that appropriators will be able to come together and reach a deal.
"I'm a Cubs fan," joked Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley (D), an appropriator. "I'm optimistic."
Jordain Carney contributed to this report.