By Robert Costa and Erica Werner | The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Republicans intent on averting another government shutdown sought Tuesday to expand border security talks to dealing with U.S. debt and other issues as lawmakers operated with no clear signal from President Donald Trump on what he would accept.
The latest idea to tack on an increase in the nation’s borrowing limit to discussions over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall divided Republicans and was immediately rejected by Democrats, a less-than-promising development on the eve of congressional negotiators’ first meeting.
“I don’t want to sink the whole thing,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said when asked about the flurry of proposals by her colleagues.
Still, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, and others worked to nudge a bipartisan group of lawmakers toward including a debt-limit hike, hoping to avoid another shutdown in mid-February when funding expires as well as a market-rattling showdown over the nation’s debt.
“We’ve had enough cliff-hangers, and that’s the point I’m trying to make,” Graham said.
The growing debate over the committee’s scope underscored the anxiety that has gripped Capitol Hill in the wake of the longest shutdown in history, which ended Friday on its 35th day. Most Republicans are now eager to avoid another shutdown, due to the political fallout they have endured in polls, which show a majority of Americans blaming Trump and the GOP for the standoff.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been cautious, said Tuesday, “I’m for whatever works, which means avoiding a shutdown and avoiding the president feeling he should declare a national emergency.”
But, McConnell added, “Exactly how to do that, as you all know, has been quite challenging. … I’m for it narrow or broader. I’m for whatever works that prevents the level of dysfunction we’ve seen on full display here the last month.”
The suggestions — which also included spending restrictions and protections for young undocumented immigrants as part of a broader pact — complicated the path ahead for the committee of 17 lawmakers charged with coming up with a spending deal to stave off another shutdown Feb. 15.
The bipartisan group, which was created as part of the deal struck Friday, is made up of members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, lawmakers more inclined to reach for compromise than stake out hard-line positions on immigration or other issues. It will meet for the first time Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol.
The White House mostly kept its distance from the committee on Tuesday, but several senators said they expected Trump and administration officials to engage with members this week — a move that lawmakers said would be likely to roil the already fragile congressional negotiations.
“I don’t think that would be helpful,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said of Trump’s potential involvement, adding, “Lindsey has a laundry list every hour. I don’t think we can take any of them seriously at this point.”
And the possibility remained that Trump could declare a national emergency at the border, using his executive powers to secure funding for his promised wall without congressional approval, White House officials said, even as Republicans and Democrats urged him to hold off.
Multiple Republican lawmakers and aides said they anticipate a meeting Thursday at the White House between Trump and Republican members of the bipartisan group, although details remained uncertain.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Trump should stay out of the negotiations. “When he mixes in, it’s a formula for failure,” he said. “I’d ask President Trump, ‘Let Congress deal with it on its own.’ “
Schumer also dismissed what he called the “added elements” being mentioned by Graham and others.
The possible add-ons to a deal arose partly because it remained unclear to lawmakers in both parties what Trump will accept as the price to keep the government open when the short-term funding bill expires.
Republicans’ starting point for talks is $5.7 billion for the border wall, but they are aware that in a negotiation with Democrats they will end up with a lower number.
“I think it’s going to have to come down if we’re actually looking for a true compromise,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. “Both sides are going to have to give.”
Two senior GOP Senate aides said the committee members would push for the $5.7 billion figure, but know that they will have to compromise on the details of how funds are allocated as Democrats are firmly against a border wall but are willing to talk about what one of the aides called “the gray area of border security where technology and steel fences can be called different things” by each party as they “try to save face.”
Although Democrats have remained steadfastly opposed to funding Trump’s wall, several have indicated openness to border barriers of some kind in recent days, which Republicans viewed as a positive sign and potential opening for compromise.
Bipartisan congressional spending bills for years have funded new and rebuilt levee walls, fences and bollards of various types along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think we’ve consistently said that we do not support a medieval border wall from sea to shining sea,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “However, we are willing to support fencing where it makes sense, but it should be done in an evidence-based fashion.”
But House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who will chair the bipartisan conference committee, refused in an interview Tuesday to say whether Democrats would support border barriers of any kind.
“Look, smart border security is not overly reliant on physical barriers, and they’re not cost-effective compared to better technology and more personnel,” Lowey said.
She also dismissed the idea of adding issues like the debt limit to their deliberations.
“Forget it. Forget it,” she said. “We have enough issues to deal with seriously, and we want to work in a bipartisan way. I have no intention of complicating the discussions.”
Congress has suspended the nation’s borrowing limit, often called the debt ceiling, until March. If it is not raised or suspended again by March 1, the U.S. Treasury would have to implement cash-saving tactics to pay its bills for a few months before it runs out of money.
Once the money is gone, Treasury would be unable to pay all its bills on time, which could lead to a financial crisis and a default on the government’s obligations. This could cause a spike in interest rates, a surge in unemployment, and a stock market crash.
Fitch Ratings warned this month that a shutdown coupled with a battle over the debt limit might damage the country’s Triple-A credit rating. A downgrade in the U.S. credit rating would make borrowing costlier for companies and American households, according to Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, along with Fitch and Standard & Poor’s.
Graham, who had dinner with Trump and other GOP officials on Monday in Washington, told CNN on Tuesday that he discussed the debt limit with the president.
Another issue that could vex the committee is the fate of young undocumented immigrants. Graham on Tuesday called on his colleagues to protect them as part of a deal and warned in a tweet that they will not “get legal status unless we address some of the causes of a broken immigration system.”
But many conservatives are wary of following Graham’s advice, and commentators such as Ann Coulter have warned Trump of outrage among his core supporters if he moves in that direction.
Nevertheless, some top Trump officials, such as senior adviser Jared Kushner, continue to pursue a sweeping agreement that would include protections for those immigrants. Kushner has been working with the conservative groups aligned with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch to discuss next steps.
White House officials, such as legislative director Shahira Knight, plan to meet with moderate Republicans and Democrats who are part of the Problem Solvers’ Caucus on Wednesday to gauge their interest in supporting aspects of barrier funding as the committee meets, according to an individual briefed on the group’s plans who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Trump long claimed Mexico would pay for the wall before he started trying to get U.S. taxpayers to do so.
Tuesday also saw further discussion of legislation to effectively ban government shutdowns, reflecting the desire in both parties to avoid another prolonged shuttering of federal agencies.
McConnell expressed openness about considering legislation but acknowledged that there is not yet consensus on the details of such legislation.
“There certainly would be no education in the third kick of a mule,” McConnell said. “I don’t like shutdowns. I don’t think they work for anybody, and I hope they will be avoided. I’m open to anything we could agree on, on a bipartisan basis.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., have proposed their own bills. Portman’s is more conservative in nature, calling on federal funding to gradually decline if Congress is unable to pass a funding package.
Warner’s bill would keep most of the federal government open during federal spending fights, but not fund the White House or Congress. Warner has said such a setup could pressure Congress and the president to avoid stalemates over federal spending.
The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta, Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.