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As shutdown nears, Trump and Congress gripped in a 'test of wills'

President Donald Trump listens during a signing ceremony for criminal justice reform legislation in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The government lurched closer to a shutdown Friday in what some lawmakers saw as a test of wills between President Donald Trump and Congress over a $5 billion down payment on the president's long-promised border wall.

Shortly before 6 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledged the impasse and announced that the Senate would halt consideration of any government spending bill until both houses of Congress and President Trump could agree on a single path forward.

"It's been clear from the beginning that two things are necessary," McConnell said. "Support from enough Senate Democrats to pass the proposal at 60 [votes] and a presidential signature." Both being absent, Congress is expected to vote only after negotiating a compromise bill that has the support of the House, Senate and White House.

"When an agreement is reached it will receive a vote here on the Senate floor," McConnell stated.

Trump campaigned on the border wall, promised his supporters that it would be built but each time Congress has passed appropriations bills, Trump has come up short on funding. With Democrats taking control of the House next year and Republicans carrying a slim majority in the Senate, Trump acknowledged that it was now or never to get funding for his border wall.

"This is our only chance that we’ll ever have in our opinion, because of the world and the way it breaks out, to get great border security," the president told reporters at the White House Friday. He added that "the chances are probably very good" that Congress will not be able to pass a spending bill by the midnight deadline.

While Trump and his allies in Congress have depicted the shutdown fight as a battle over national sovereignty and border security, outgoing Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina disagreed.

"To the average person out there, when I talk to people back home, they say this is more about personal will than it is about bigger ideas," he told reporters Friday. "This is about Trump's ego."

The five-term congressman who was in office for the Clinton and Obama-era shutdowns, said they are part of the "tug of war that is politics." He continued, "More often than not, it begins to be viewed as a test of wills and ego rather than ideas."

Throughout the day Friday, the Senate was poised to defeat a short-term spending bill passed the previous night by House Republicans and applauded by President Trump. The bill included $5 billion in border wall funding and $8 billion in disaster relief.

McConnell brought the bill to the floor saying he was "proud to vote for it." He argued that in a "normal political moment" the billions of dollars for a border wall would be "quite uncontroversial."

However, the border wall has taken on "symbolic" importance for both parties and neither has much incentive to compromise, Sanford noted. "As a consequence, you see this knockdown, drag-out fight."

Given the dynamic, the House measure was always destined to fail in the Senate. The outgoing GOP majority still wanted to send a message.

"This is not a political argument. This is literally a national security, border security argument that some people feel very passionate about," explained Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.

Meadows welcomed a government shutdown if it meant securing money for the border wall. He noted Friday that there will be political costs for shutting down the government, "but I think it's more short-term as long as you come out of it with real policy wins."

Trump appeared to be weighing the potential political costs on Friday when he tried to shift the blame for the shutdown onto Democrats. Last week, he announced that he would be "proud" to take ownership of a government shutdown over border security. On Friday, he tweeted, "The Democrats now own the shutdown!"

The president's "change of heart" had nothing to do with border security, explained Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. "This is about the president feeding his base, saying he was going to build a wall that he said Mexico was going to pay for," he noted.

It was clear for weeks that Republicans did not have the 60 votes in the Senate to pass funding for the border wall. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., described the vote on the House bill a "pointless exercise" and "a political gambit by President Trump to appease his never-happy base."

The Senate passed its own short-term spending bill Wednesday with unanimous consent. The bill did not fund the border wall but would have kept the government open through February.

After approving the bill, many senators went home for the holidays, under the impression that President Trump would support the short-term funding bill they passed Wednesday, even though it didn't fund the wall.

"I thought that he would be able to accept this," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "I think once he saw the reaction from the base, I think it strengthened his resolve to try and move forward and unfortunately that puts us in this position we've got right now," Rounds said.

The House voted to approve the border wall late Thursday, it set off a scramble. Senators were given more than five hours to cast their votes Friday as some lawmakers rushed back to the Capitol.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn left Washington Thursday afternoon and was back on a return flight from Texas at 5 a.m. Friday. Tired and greeted by a throng of reporters, Cornyn noted that the president was "obviously not in the mood for zeroing...out" funding for the wall.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz had to turn around after an 11-hour flight to Hawaii. At 7 a.m. he tweeted from the Washington-Dulles airport, "Wheels down IAD ready to vote no on this stupid wall."

There were 33 Republicans and 34 Democrats absent for a series of votes in the House Friday morning. By 6 p.m., six members were absent in the Senate. Those who stayed may be stuck at the Capitol through Christmas, or at least until they can send something to President Trump's desk.

The House voted to reconvene at noon Saturday and the Senate is also expected to meet.

Until then, the two branches of government will have to negotiate the final spending bill. Retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said each side would push ahead to a negotiated outcome that "does the best we can to keep from shutting down government, or if it does shut down, shutting down very briefly."

Trump has already dug in his heels and told reporters Friday that his administration is "totally prepared for a very long shutdown."

Trump already presided over two government shutdowns in early 2018. One lasted three days and the other was a temporary funding lapse that was resolved in nine hours.

The longest government shutdowns in recent memory took place under the Clinton administration and lasted 21 days, from December 1995 through January 1996. The Obama administration presided over a 13-day shutdown in 2013 that was estimated to cost the U.S. economy $24 billion in direct and indirect losses.

A partial shutdown at midnight will directly impact about 900,000 federal workers. Some will be furloughed, others, like those responsible for national security and other critical roles, will work without pay.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia represents a state with one of the greatest number of federal workers. He lashed out at House Republicans for "weaponizing government" as a way to punish federal employees. "They're complete idiots," Kaine said.

The House and Senate were both in session Friday with multiple options on the table to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight but no clear path forward with mere hours out a path to avoid a government shutdown and mere hours to reach an agreement.

At least three options have been proposed in recent days to avert a partial shutdown:

  1. A two-month continuing resolution, passed by the Senate Wednesday, that would keep the government funded through Feb. 8 but does not provide any funding for a border wall.
  2. A Democratic proposal for a one-year continuing resolution, through Sept. 30, that would fund the government and the Department of Homeland Security at 2018 levels.
  3. A Democratic proposal to pass bipartisan appropriations for every agency except the Department of Homeland Security, which would be funded at 2018 levels through Sept. 30.

Those may change during negotiations. None of the options allow for any funding for the wall. The last two provide $1.3 billion for general border security.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that there are enough votes in the House to easily pass the two-month continuing resolution (CR) approved by the Senate this week.

Rep. Meeks is pushing for the House to approve the short-term CR and send it to Trump, who will then decide whether or not to sign it into law.

"We should send it to his desk. Let him be the one to say, I'm shutting down the government for a long time," he said. "That would make it clear, so the American people will know who's doing what and why."



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