The White House is pushing a deal on Capitol Hill to head off a government shutdown that would lift strict spending caps long opposed by Democrats in exchange for money for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, multiple sources said.
Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, met with top staffers from both parties on the Senate Appropriations Committee last week to make a hard sell for the proposal, the sources said.
Short — who said the border funding would be used for a “double fence” — stressed that the White House is insisting on a down payment for construction this fall. Short also lobbied for a big budget increase for the Pentagon, another priority for Trump.
The government runs out of money after Sept. 30. Without a spending deal, federal agencies will be forced to close until an agreement is reached. Democrats have vowed to oppose funding for a border wall, making it probably the biggest threat to an early October closure.
The White House is offering Democrats more funding for their own pet projects in return for allowing construction to move ahead on a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border — though perhaps not the "big, beautiful wall" with solar panels that Trump has long promised.
The border wall has also become a more valuable prize politically for Trump since the collapse of the Obamacare repeal effort. Trump and GOP leaders are aiming to pass tax reform legislation this fall but face big obstacles — making the border wall even more important for the White House.
Yet there still seems little chance of getting sign-off from Congress. Democrats show no sign of yielding on the issue. They have already blocked the project once: During negotiations over a government spending package last spring, the White House dropped similar demands for wall funding after Democrats balked.
Trump and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney have since said they won’t cave this time — even if it means shutting down the government. Indeed, lawmakers and aides in both parties are dreading the looming showdown, as a White House desperate for legislative wins makes a major push for a wall that Democrats hate.
“It’s just the wrong message; we don’t want to build a wall around the United States,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and called the border wall a “non-starter.”
“It’s difficult for me to see that proposal going anywhere,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) added. “A lot of people don’t want the additional border wall.”
The timing of Short’s meeting with Senate Appropriations staffers — a full two months before the government would shut down — suggests the White House is aware of just how difficult it will be to secure border funding. White House officials appear to be trying to give themselves as much time as possible to strike a deal.
The White House did not return a request for comment. But GOP insiders on Capitol Hill expect negotiations could drag out well beyond Sept. 30. Senior GOP and Democratic aides believe a two- or three-month patch that continues spending at 2017 levels is likely, in order to buy more time.
Before leaving for August recess, House Republicans made the first move on a wall, passing a security funding bill that included Trump’s $1.6 billion request for roughly 70 miles of new barriers on the southern border.
The House bill also increased the Defense Department budget by more than $70 billion above current spending caps set in law. All but five House Democrats opposed the measure.
Such a bill, however, is doomed in the Senate, where 60 votes — meaning eight Democrats — are needed to pass any spending agreement. Beyond their opposition to the wall funding, Democrats typically require any military spending boosts to be matched by domestic increases.
Republican and Democratic congressional aides have predicted for months that both sides will come together on a spending agreement to raise spending caps for the Pentagon as well as for non-defense domestic programs.
Congress passed such a framework several years ago under the lead of then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
The question this time is whether Trump can get his wall money as part of any agreement.
Some Republicans are more optimistic than others. White House officials appear to believe it’s a battle that’s worth fighting. And congressional conservatives, including those in the House Freedom Caucus, strongly agree, even suggesting they would back a government shutdown to secure wall funding.
After being forced to drop his request for wall money last spring, Trump also tweeted that “our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September” to secure the campaign promises he ran on.
Hill GOP leaders, however, are eager to avoid a shutdown, fearful the public would blame Republicans and that the party could suffer heavy losses in the 2018 midterm elections. They already worry that Trump’s slumping approval ratings will cost them at the polls next year.
Still, some Republicans are hopeful that if the White House can sell the border barrier as a “fence” instead of a wall, perhaps some Democrats will be more receptive. Technically, the House wall funding package would not finance a massive brick-and-mortar structure, as Trump promised on the campaign trail, but rather, double fencing and levies.
“Look, there are places where the wall makes sense, and there are places where the wall doesn’t make sense and there are better options,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who represents a state that Trump carried by 20 points in the election. “So I’ll just take a look at it and see.”
But it’s unlikely that the White House will find eight Democratic senators to go along, even if means more money for domestic programs.
“I do know for a fact that every (Democrat) considers wall funding to be a poison pill,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who is up for reelection next year.
Murray, the Democrat who negotiated the 2013 budget pact, said she would oppose the terms that the White House is floating.
"He promised during the campaign he was going to build a wall paid for by Mexico," Murray said. "Until I see that promise, it’s going nowhere."
Jennifer Scholtes and Elana Schor contributed to this report.