How the new Congress could end Trump's shutdown fight

Mr Donald Trump could give up the US$5 billion he wants for the wall, Democrats give Mr Trump his wall money, or both sides come up with a face-saving deal.
Mr Donald Trump could give up the US$5 billion he wants for the wall, Democrats give Mr Trump his wall money, or both sides come up with a face-saving deal.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - House Democrats will use their new majority on Thursday (Jan 3) to vote on legislation to end the United States government shutdown without adding funds for President Donald Trump's border wall, but the GOP-controlled Senate already has signalled it won't act without White House consent.

The plan is to pass two separate Bills, one reopening eight departments - which have been closed since Dec 22 - through September 2019 and another temporarily reopening the Department of Homeland Security through Feb 8, two House Democratic aides said on Monday.

The partial government shutdown is an unwelcome gift for the new Congress, which opens on Jan 3 with the House and Senate politically split.

Ms Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be elected House speaker on Thursday, has said her party would vote on ending the shutdown on its first day in power. This would allow negotiations over Mr Trump's request for US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) for a border wall to continue while the rest of the government would continue operating.

But the Senate doesn't plan to rubber-stamp the House plan. "It's simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the President that he won't sign," said Mr Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby said on Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the House votes "would be probably an empty gesture. But that goes on in Washington every day".

But as the shutdown drags on, some moderate Republicans may start pressuring Mr McConnell to take a more active role by putting the House Bill on the floor for amendment.

House Republicans will also have a role to play, even though they'll be in the minority. If some moderates start to balk at Mr Trump's hard-line strategy, they could back a Bill to reopen the government and raise the prospect of overriding a Trump veto.

There are three basic ways the shutdown that started on Dec 22 could end: Mr Trump gives up the US$5 billion he wants for the wall, Democrats give Mr Trump his wall money, or both sides come up with a face-saving deal. There are many options for that type of deal.

Here are some of the possible scenarios:

DEMOCRATS WIN

Ms Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered options to Mr Trump during a heated Oval Office meeting on Dec 11, including a six-Bill spending package with a stopgap for Homeland Security and a full-year stopgap spending Bill for all the closed federal departments.

On Monday, the two aides said the first House measure to be voted on Thursday would provide funding through September for the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, State, Commerce and Justice, as well as related agencies. The measure will be based on bipartisan draft Senate Bills. Disaster aid for hurricanes and wildfires would be handled separately, one of the aides said.

Democrats are aiming to pressure Senate Republican leaders to allow votes on the Bills. The Senate unanimously approved an extension of Homeland Security through Feb 8 before the shutdown began, only to see the Bill die in the House after Mr Trump rejected the plan.

The full-year spending Bills for Interior, Financial Services, Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban development passed the Senate in August on a 92 to 6 vote. The Commerce and Justice Bill was approved in committee on a 30 to 1 vote.

Mr Trump has dug in and isn't likely to accept the plan, which would provide US$1.3 billion for border security on a pro-rated basis, though it cannot be used for new fencing.

STOPGAP SPENDING INTO FEBRUARY

The Senate could hold up the full year spending Bill and simply pass a stopgap Bill for all nine departments through Feb 8. Such a Bill passed the Senate on a voice vote earlier last month before being scuttled in the House by outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan and objections from Mr Trump. As the pain of the federal shutdown increases and workers miss their Jan 11 pay cheques, this option could become more attractive. Lawmakers could also keep current spending levels into March or later.

 
 
 
 

Senate Compromise Revived Lawmakers could revive a deal reached in August by Mr Shelby and top Appropriations Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy to provide US$1.6 billion for border barriers, including about 105km of pedestrian fencing near the Rio Grande River.

"I think US$1.6 billion has a nice ring to it," said outgoing Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn just prior to the shutdown.

"A lot of people in retrospect will say we should have accepted that," Mr Leahy told reporters on Dec 19. The money could have been used only to build existing designs such as steel bollard fencing, and the barriers couldn't be built in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas along the banks of the Rio Grande. This plan would let Mr Trump claim the shutdown gained US$300 million more in funding for border security than Democrats' US$1.3 billion offer.

PENCE OFFER TWEAKED

Vice-President Mike Pence told Mr Schumer on Dec 22 that Mr Trump could accept US$2.1 billion for border barriers, plus a US$400 million flexible fund for the President's "immigration priorities".

Democrats dismissed the US$400 million as a "slush fund" that could be used to mistreat migrants, and they called the offer hollow because Mr Trump hadn't publicly endorsed it.

Still, this offer could become the seed for a deal if Mr Trump endorsed it. Language could be added to limit the money to barriers that Mr Trump could call a wall and Democrats could call a fence. Limits on the US$400 million could direct the money to mutually agreeable uses. Mr Trump met Mr Pence, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and senior adviser Jared Kushner last Friday night at Mr Pence's residence for about two hours.

Mr McConnell, prior to the shutdown, offered Democrats a deal allocating US$1.6 billion for border barriers plus US$1 billion for a flexible fund. A compromise could be reached by shrinking or eliminating the flexible fund and providing between US$1.6 billion and US$2.1 billion for barriers.

These options appear less likely since Mr Trump on Monday said he has not abandoned demands for a concrete wall on at least part of the border.

GRAND BARGAIN

Earlier this year, Mr Schumer and Mr Trump attempted to craft a deal on immigration that would have provided US$25 billion for the wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. That was scuttled after conservatives insisted on changes to legal immigration, and court challenges halted attempts to deport the immigrants.

White House officials have said Mr Trump could be open to this idea again, though Democrats say they don't trust Mr Trump to complete the deal without adding demands at the last minute.

Trump Wins

The name of the game in shutdown fights is avoiding blame. Mr Trump said in the widely televised Oval Office meeting on Dec 11 that he would accept blame for any shutdown, but since it began, he has insisted that Democrats are at fault. On Sunday, he tweeted about a "SchumerShutdown". Democrats are in no mood to give in, making a capitulation to Mr Trump the least likely scenario.

Slightly less implausible: Mr Shelby floated a compromise in which Mr Trump's US$5 billion would be split into US$2.5 billion for each of two years. Mr Trump was said to privately back the idea, but Democrats rejected it because the money could be used for a concrete wall. Because Mr Pence's Dec 22 offer was lower than the US$2.5 billion level, returning to this solution seems unlikely.

On CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Mr Shelby urged both sides to stop the blame game and said Democrats should articulate what kind of border security they can support. Montana Democrat Jon Tester, on the same programme, said he prefers technology and more manpower at the border to a wall.