Donald Trump's Border-Wall Push Muddies Spending Talks

By Kristina Peterson Features Dow Jones Newswires

Less than a week before the federal government could run out of money, White House officials said President Donald Trump wants any spending deal to include some funding for a border wall, despite little appetite among congressional Republicans for risking a partial shutdown over the issue.

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The administration's last-minute push, voiced on Sunday talk shows and by the president himself on Twitter, injected a note of volatility into the coming week, when lawmakers return after a recess and with little time for reaching an agreement to keep the government operating after its current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday -- also the 100th day of Mr. Trump's presidency.

That deadline has left congressional Republicans juggling the demands of the White House and its shifting messages with those of Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

Complicating the intricate negotiations over the funding bill, top White House officials also are also urging House Republicans to move swiftly to revive a partisan health-care bill that stalled last month, and Mr. Trump has said he would release a proposal for overhauling the tax code on Wednesday.

Given the complications and tight timeline, few, if any, of Mr. Trump's legislative ambitions are likely to be realized by Saturday. That means GOP lawmakers would face the uncomfortable choice of denying or deferring some of Mr. Trump's wishes, such as funding the wall, before the symbolic 100th day, or triggering a showdown with Democrats.

House Republicans held a weekend conference call where GOP leaders said they would focus first on striking a deal to keep the government funded.

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"The top priority is keeping the government open," Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.) said in an interview after the Saturday afternoon call. "I support the [border] wall, but I don't like us getting bogged down in symbolic, ideological fights" on must-pass legislation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) told Republicans that the House Appropriations Committee had been working closely with the White House on the spending agreement, according to a Republican on the call.

"And so, wherever we land will be a product the president can and will support," Mr. Ryan said, according to that person. If lawmakers can't reach a bipartisan deal by Friday, they may pass a one-week stopgap measure, buying more time for negotiations, lawmakers and aides predicted. A larger bill would fund the government until October and could include a newly written defense-spending bill.

The spending bill under discussion already was expected to include some of the president's wishes, including an increase in funding for the military and border security.

But White House officials began pushing for more late last week, potentially destabilizing the precarious balance required to avert a shutdown.

Administration officials said Mr. Trump wants the spending bill to include funding to begin building the wall along the southern border. However, they haven't threatened that he would veto a bill that excluded it.

"The president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for a border wall," Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in an interview that aired Sunday on CNN. "I will suspect he will be insistent on the funding."

In March, the administration asked Congress for $1.4 billion in spending for the current fiscal year for the project, with an additional $2.6 billion for the next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1. Administration officials said the fiscal 2017 money would pay for 48 miles of new border and levee wall systems, and 14 miles of replacement fencing, as well as some technology improvements and road construction.

"It's not like we're inserting something that the president didn't talk about on the campaign," White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said in an interview Friday. "It should come as a surprise to no one that President Trump wants money for a southern border wall."

Mr. Trump himself repeated his request over Twitter on Sunday. "The Democrats don't want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members," he said.

But White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday the administration could be flexible on whether the spending bill included money specifically for the wall, suggesting funds for border security could be considered sufficient for now.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats in both chambers have warned that they aren't willing to fund the wall in the coming spending bill.

"The Democrats do not support the wall," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Sunday on NBC. "The wall is, in my view, immoral, expensive, unwise, and when the president says 'Well, I promised a wall during my campaign,' I don't think he said he was going to pass billions of dollars of cost of the wall on to the taxpayer."

While some Republicans said they would be willing to set aside funds for the border, many are reluctant to imperil a bill that would need at least eight Democratic votes to pass the Senate. GOP leaders are also likely to need Democratic votes in the House, where some conservatives are expected to oppose the bill, giving Democrats unusual leverage at a time of full GOP government control.

Democrats are pushing to include payments, known as "cost-sharing reductions," that help support Affordable Care Act plans by helping insurers lower costs for low-income consumers. An abrupt withdrawal of the payments would pose an immediate threat to health-insurance markets, potentially triggering the collapse of health plans midyear.

With Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress for the first time since early 2007, GOP lawmakers and aides have stressed the need to demonstrate their party can govern, particularly after House leaders were forced to pull their health-care bill from the floor last month when it became clear it lacked enough Republican support to pass. Mr. Priebus said on NBC Sunday that he "would like to have a vote this week" on a modified health bill, "but again, it's not something that has to happen in order to define our success."

Even if the bill were to clear the House this week, it isn't clear it could pass the Senate and certainly couldn't do so before Saturday.

--Brody Mullins, Peter Nicholas and Michelle Hackman contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 23, 2017 19:43 ET (23:43 GMT)