Trump's Border-Wall Pledge Complicates GOP Efforts to Avoid Government Shutdown

By Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump's threat to shut down the government if Congress doesn't approve funding for a Mexico border wall raised alarm among some Republican lawmakers, who say it could throw a wrench in their efforts to keep government open this fall.

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Lawmakers returning to Washington in early September will have only a dozen days with both the House and Senate in session before the government's current funding expires on Oct. 1. Lawmakers from both parties had expected Congress to pass a stopgap two- or three-month spending bill, but Mr. Trump's remarks injected new volatility into an already uncertain political climate this fall.

Mr. Trump said Tuesday night he was prepared to dig in over his request for $1.6 billion toward the border wall, one of his signature campaign promises.

"We're going to get our wall," Mr. Trump said at a rally in Phoenix. "If we have to close down our government, we're building that wall. "

Mr. Trump's push quickly hit resistance within his own party, including among some GOP lawmakers who attended his rally on Tuesday.

"A government shutdown hurts Republicans -- it's the last thing I want," said Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus who was at the rally. "It is a political liability of profound significance to us."

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Although some conservatives backed Mr. Trump's demand, a border wall is controversial among many Republicans, some of whom think it isn't the most effective way to tighten border security. And after this year's protracted and unsuccessful struggle to roll back and replace much of the Affordable Care Act, few senior Republicans are eager to shut down the government now that they control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

"I don't think anyone's interested in having a shutdown," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) told reporters at a stop at an Intel Corp. facility in Oregon on Wednesday. Mr. Ryan said that while he agreed with Mr. Trump that a physical barrier was needed in places along the border, "I don't think a government shutdown is necessary, and I don't think most people want to see a government shutdown, ourselves included."

Mr. Ryan said he expected lawmakers would need to pass a short-term spending bill in September to give them more time to work out a broader budget agreement later this year.

Many GOP lawmakers worry a shutdown or a failure to raise the government's borrowing limit -- another deadline they are facing this fall -- could harm their chances of retaining the House majority in next year's midterm elections. Treasury officials have said Congress must raise the government's borrowing limit by around the end of September.

If Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling to allow new borrowing, the U.S. could default on its debt or miss payments of benefits and salaries.

Fitch Ratings said Wednesday that a failure to raise the U.S. debt limit in a "timely manner" would prompt a review of the country's credit rating for possible downgrade. Fitch said a government shutdown would have no direct impact on its rating, but would "highlight how political divisions pose challenges" to the budget process.

"A government shutdown would be fatal for our majority and inappropriate for the country," Rep. Dennis Ross (R., Fla.), a member of the House GOP whip team, said this week. "We own those because we're in charge, and if we don't handle those, it's going to be very irresponsible," he said of the spending and debt limit deadlines.

Democrats, whose votes likely will be needed in both chambers, swiftly rejected Mr. Trump's demand Wednesday morning. Spending bills need 60 votes to pass the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats.

"If the president pursues this path, against the wishes of both Republicans and Democrats, as well as the majority of the American people, he will be heading towards a government shutdown, which nobody will like and which won't accomplish anything," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Among Democrats, the border wall has become a potent symbol for what they view as Mr. Trump's hostility toward both legal and illegal immigrants. The president's response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month has also exacerbated tension between Democrats and Mr. Trump, making a compromise over the border wall more elusive.

"My best estimate is that there are no Democratic votes for the border wall," said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. Democrats are likely to remain firm "and let the Republicans shut the government down over it," he said. "I really see no give on that."

Mr. Trump had made a similar push for border wall funding in April, but backed off his demands when Republicans signaled they were not ready to shut the government down over the issue.

This time around, smarting from a stinging defeat over the health-care bill, Mr. Trump has telegraphed he won't retreat and some conservatives said they were on board with his push.

"If I had been standing in the crowd, I would have been leading the cheer," said Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa.). "If Congress says they refuse to fund a $1.6 billion appropriation to follow through on the lead mandate that voters delivered when they elected Donald Trump, then if all the functions of government shut down because Congress refused, then I think that would be on Congress instead of the president."

But many other Republicans, while generally supportive of the border wall, have little interest in allowing a shutdown now that they control all levers of government.

"Nobody is looking to do any kind of government shutdown. Our job is to be functional, to be effective," Rep. Mark Walker (R., N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 House Republicans, said in an interview Tuesday before Mr. Trump's rally.

For GOP leaders, the challenge is that many House Republicans often balk at spending bills, forcing them to rely on Democratic votes to clear the must-pass bills. Unless they can persuade roughly 218 House Republicans to support a spending bill, Democratic defections over the border wall would derail it.

"I don't think Republicans want to confront the consequences of either a government shutdown or a debt default on their watch," said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.).

-- Chris Dieterich contributed to this article

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 23, 2017 15:38 ET (19:38 GMT)