Senate eyes short-term spending bill, but border wall battle continues

    Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., speaks to WJLA from Capitol Hill on Dec. 19, 2018. (WJLA)

    As the Senate made efforts to back down from the precipice of a partial government shutdown with a short-term continuing resolution Wednesday, it remained unclear how, when, or even if President Donald Trump will be able to fund a wall along the nation’s southern border.

    “I would have much preferred we got an agreement to fully fund those remaining agencies through the end of the fiscal year, but certainly an extension through Feb. 8 is better than all the disruptive impacts of a shutdown,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said after Senate leaders announced the deal.

    President Trump has repeatedly threatened to allow the Department of Homeland Security and several agencies to run out of money Friday night if Congress does not authorize $5 billion to go toward building a wall, but the White House indicated Tuesday he is open to finding the money some other way.

    Congress approved appropriations for about 75 percent of the government before the midterm elections, but the border wall has remained an obstacle in finding consensus on the rest. More than 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed days before Christmas if no agreement is reached.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced a continuing resolution Wednesday that would keep the agencies funded through Feb. 8, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Democrats would support the stopgap measure. According to The Associated Press, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said the president would at least consider signing it if it makes it through the Republican-controlled House.

    Schumer said it is “good news” that Trump has backed down from his absolute demand that Congress provide funding for the wall.

    The tentative agreement came after Democrats rejected a proposal from McConnell Tuesday that would not have provided funding for the wall but would have created a $1 billion “slush fund” for Trump to spend on immigration enforcement.

    "This seems to be the reality of our political moment," McConnell said as he announced the bill Wednesday. "It seems like political spite for the president may be winning out over sensible policy."

    Although Trump claimed last week he would be “proud” to shut the government down if Congress did not approve money for the wall, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday the administration believes it can find the money from other sources.

    Van Hollen questioned whether Trump has as much flexibility as he thinks in directing unused funds from other programs to the wall.

    “Any funds that come through the accounts of federal agencies are taxpayer dollars and under our Constitution, Congress would have to approve the expenditure of those dollars,” he said.

    Democrats stress that they support federal spending on border security, and they had offered to give the White House the $1.6 billion for the border it initially requested for 2019. However, they will not approve any funds that would go toward a wall they believe would be an ineffective waste of money.

    “Everyone should understand the dispute here is not about the need for border security,” Van Hollen said. “The issue is making sure we spend American taxpayer dollars wisely.”

    Among the many reasons Democrats have cited for opposing Trump’s $5 billion demand is that the president famously vowed on the campaign trail that he would make Mexico pay for the wall.

    “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” Trump said on Twitter last year when he first started calling for Congress to appropriate the estimated $25 billion the wall is projected to cost.

    The White House has floated a rationalization that additional money brought in through more favorable trade conditions in the still-unratified U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will somehow cover the costs of the border wall.

    “Mexico is paying (indirectly) for the Wall through the new USMCA, the replacement for NAFTA! Far more money coming to the U.S. Because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

    Officials have offered no evidence to support that assertion, and Sanders struggled to explain it during a press briefing Tuesday.

    “He’s saying that the revenue provided in the money that would be saved through the USMCA deal would pay for the wall four times over. And by doing that new trade deal, we have the opportunity to pay for the wall,” she said.

    Although Trump and McConnell have exclusively blamed Democrats for the budget impasse, some Republicans have balked at giving the president the money he wants for the wall as well.

    “Yes, border security is important, but building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive, least effective way to do border security,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who has more of the border in his district than any other member of Congress.

    Trump insisted Tuesday night his critics are mischaracterizing the “wall,” which would not be an actual concrete wall but instead something that others say sounds very much like a fence.

    “The Democrats, are saying loud and clear that they do not want to build a Concrete Wall - but we are not building a Concrete Wall, we are building artistically designed steel slats, so that you can easily see through it,” he tweeted.

    Semantics aside, Hurd suggested the focus on physical barriers overlooks more reliable technological solutions.

    “DHS has a program called the innovative towers program,” he said. “This is using the latest and greatest technology in order to make sure we know what’s coming back and forth across our border and ensuring that information gets in the hands of the men and women of Border Patrol so they can do the interdiction and stop this from happening.”

    The Senate was set to vote on McConnell’s continuing resolution late Wednesday. Its fate in the House is still uncertain, but Hurd is confident a shutdown over the wall can be averted, or at least delayed a couple of months.

    “The American people sent us to Washington, D.C. to get things done, not to burn this place down. We should be able to get this thing done, and especially if the sticking point was for a wall,” he said.

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