Trump Willing to Hold Off on Border-Wall Funding

By Kristina Peterson and Rebecca Ballhaus Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump is open to waiting until later this year to secure funding for a wall along the border with Mexico, White House officials said Monday night, in a shift that could clear the way for lawmakers to strike a deal to avoid a government shutdown on Saturday.

Continue Reading Below

Mr. Trump and top administration officials previously indicated the president wanted to include money to begin building a wall along the southern border in the bill to keep the government running after its current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, which is also the president's 100th day in office.

The president addressed the issue at a reception with conservative media at the White House on Monday night. The president's new flexibility over whether the wall is funded in this spending bill or one that will be needed in late September could remove one of the last remaining hurdles facing congressional Democrats and Republicans hammering out the five-month bill they must pass this week to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Without the debate over the border wall, lawmakers may be able to come to an agreement on the spending bill relatively quickly. Both Democrats and Republicans had signaled they were willing to increase money for the military and for broader border security before administration officials last week indicated that Mr. Trump would press for money to begin building the wall.

There had been little appetite among Republicans on Capitol Hill to demand funding now for the border wall specifically, rather than offer a general boost for tighter border security. Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the spending legislation in the Senate, had said they would oppose a spending bill that included money to start building the border wall.

"It's good for the country that President Trump is taking the wall off the table in these negotiations," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Monday night. Earlier Monday, Mr. Schumer had said the wall was a "nonstarter" for Democrats. "Now the bipartisan and bicameral negotiators can continue working on the outstanding issues," he said.

Continue Reading Below

Democratic votes will be needed, because Republicans hold just 52 seats in the Senate, where spending bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles. House GOP leaders will also likely have to rely on some Democratic help, since some conservative Republicans are expected to oppose it.

Many Republicans had indicated they would be satisfied with a spending bill that included money to strengthen security along the border in ways other than building a wall.

"Border security's the main issue -- whether that includes a wall or technology, drones, or repairing what we have," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito

(R., W. Va.) said Monday evening. Ms. Capito said she wasn't interested in risking a shutdown over the border wall. "I'm not going to risk a shutdown over anything," she said.

Other Republicans echoed that their top priority was making sure they crafted a spending bill that could clear both chambers before the government runs out of money. "I wouldn't mind funding the wall, but it's a question of what we can do up here, what's doable," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In March, the administration asked Congress for $1.4 billion in spending for the current fiscal year for the wall, 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.

One issue that remains unresolved is whether the five-month spending bill under negotiation would include payments to health insurers known as "cost-sharing reductions," as requested by Democrats.

The payments support Affordable Care Act insurance 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.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

WASHINGTON -- With President Donald Trump now willing to wait on money to fund a border wall, lawmakers on Capitol Hill edged closer Tuesday to a deal to prevent a government shutdown but were still slogging through a raft of unresolved issues.

The biggest lingering question now is whether the spending bill, which is needed to keep the government running after its current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, will include payments established by the Affordable Care Act to help insurers offset the cost of subsidies for low-income customers.

While few lawmakers from either party favor letting the payments lapse, which could potentially trigger the collapse of health plans midyear, both GOP leaders and Mr. Trump would prefer that the other take responsibility for them.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has said that the administration should continue making the payments. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that he believed Congress would have to make the decision on whether to set aside money for the payments and that if it didn't, he might consider cutting them off.

Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the spending bill, have said the legislation should include money for the "cost-sharing" payments, which reimburse insurers for subsidies that lower the cost of deductibles, copayments and coinsurance for about six million people who obtain insurance on the ACA's exchanges.

"We want to prevent the Trump administration and Republicans from defunding health care," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday. But he declined to say whether Democrats would oppose the spending bill if the payments were excluded.

The challenge for GOP leaders is that many House Republicans could balk at voting for funds aimed at shoring up the ACA at a time when their legislation to replace most of the law has foundered. House GOP leaders were forced to pull their bill overhauling the law last month when it became clear it didn't have the votes to pass.

"There's obviously a lot of people who have strong opinions about that in the House, given what we're trying to do with Obamacare. So, my guess is that it doesn't end up getting addressed in this bill," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said of the insurance payments.

Lawmakers are also still negotiating whether the spending bill should include health-care and pension benefits for retired coal miners and their dependents, an issue that nearly derailed a government funding measure in December. That bill extended health-care benefits until April 30 for more than 22,000 retired coal miners and dependents, according to the United Mine Workers of America.

Now, lawmakers are wrangling over whether to extend that funding permanently or on a more-limited basis and whether to address pensions for retired miners and their widows, which are at risk of running out by 2022. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on Tuesday that he favored a "permanent fix" for miners' health care. House GOP leaders prefer a shorter-term solution, according to aides involved in the discussions.

The issue arises because of a decades-old federal promise of lifetime pensions and retiree health benefits to the United Mine Workers of America. Several lawmakers in states with affected miners, including West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, oppose another short-term fix because of the stress they say it puts on the miners and their families.

Neither the ACA payments nor the miners' health-care benefits appeared likely to set up a partisan showdown that could trigger a partial government shutdown on Saturday.

Lawmakers said the path to a deal became easier after Mr. Trump dropped his demand that the legislation include money for a wall along the border with Mexico, a stance that emerged Monday night. Mr. Trump is now saying that he would be willing to seek funding for the border wall later in the year.

The five-month spending bill is expected to include additional funding for the military and border security, according to lawmakers and aides. Those provisions are less controversial than the border wall, even among Republicans.

"Obviously we need better border security, but I've not been a fan of a 2,000-mile wall," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.)

Mr. Trump said Tuesday that he was confident that the wall would be built and indicated some flexibility on timing.

"The wall's going to get built, folks," Mr. Trump told reporters. "We have plenty of time."

--Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 25, 2017 17:48 ET (21:48 GMT)