WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Congress will vote this week to give themselves until Dec. 21 to reach a spending deal and prevent the threat of a government shutdown over funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Congress was heading for a possible shutdown Friday until House and Senate leaders agreed to give themselves a two-week extension to avoid a messy partisan fight immediately after the death of former President George H.W. Bush.
Considering Bush's passing, the House canceled votes for the week and the Senate postponed business until after the former president's memorial service in Washington Wednesday.
The extension, or continuing resolution, only delays the inevitable and sets up a government shutdown fight the Friday before Christmas.
Congress has already funded about 70 percent of the government through the fiscal year but they still have to find the money for nine Cabinet departments and dozens of smaller agencies. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate say they have reached an agreement on almost everything required to keep the federal government's lights on, with the exception of funding the border wall.
President Trump has requested $5 billion for the wall and threatened to shut down the government if Congress comes up short. Over the weekend, Trump suggested he was open to giving lawmakers more time to negotiate. "If they come, which they have, to talk about an extension because of President Bush’s passing, I would absolutely consider it and probably give it," he told reporters on his return flight from the G-20 summit in Argentina.
Lawmakers could conceivably reach an agreement on border security issues before the Dec. 21 deadline, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "We could do it in two or three days, not a week, not two weeks. But right now we're at an impasse over the funding of the wall," he said.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and some Republicans were pushing for a tighter, one-week deadline, which would put pressure on both sides to reach a deal sooner and reduce the prospects of spending Christmas in Washington.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday, "Hopefully in the next week or so that will be resolved, in one way or another." Until then, the House is expected to vote Thursday on a two-week continuing resolution. Democrats are not expected to object when the vote is called.
After passing the House, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intends to clear the resolution in the Senate, his office confirmed Tuesday. McConnell has repeatedly rejected the possibility of a government shutdown, saying this week, "I don’t think we’ll get to that point."
While the Republican-controlled House previously voted for the full $5 billion in wall funding, Senate Democrats are holding out at $1.6 billion, a figure Trump has refused to accept. Trump was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The meeting was called off due to President Bush's death. Schumer did not immediately respond to reporters' questions Tuesday about rescheduling.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he hopes Trump talks with Pelosi and Schumer to prevent a partial shutdown this month. "If the president wants to avoid a shutdown, and it's entirely in his hands at this point, he needs to sit down and negotiate," Durbin said at a Washington Post event Tuesday.
Trump made his appeal for Democratic support on Twitter, saying their votes for the border wall "would save Billions of Dollars." The total cost of the wall is projected to be $25 billion. On Tuesday, he claimed the U.S. loses $250 billion annually on illegal immigration. The wall "Pays for itself in two months," he added.
At least two Trump allies in the House and Senate have proposed legislation to fund the full costs of the wall. Sen. James Inhofe recently touted a "fiscally responsible" plan for $25 billion in wall funding by cutting off federal welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. House Republicans also tried unsuccessfully to make the border wall more palatable to Democrats and introduced a measure last week to split the bill and guarantee $2.5 billion for two years.
Senate Democrats say they are still waiting for the Republican majority to deliver a formal plan so they can start negotiations before the Christmas and New Year's recess, which was scheduled to begin Friday, Dec. 14.
"I think we could wrap this thing up if the Republicans would put an offer on the table to keep the government funded," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told reporters. "That is the responsibility of the party in power and they simply haven't been able to do it."
In addition to border wall funding, Congress will also have until Dec. 21 to pass a five-year farm bill, reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program and prevent the Violence Against Women Act from lapsing. Lawmakers are also considering tacking other legislative priorities onto the must-pass spending bill.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told Sinclair that the two-week extension will provide an opportunity to negotiate key priorities, specifically a vote on criminal justice reform. "It could be part of an end of the year deal," she said. McConnell has blocked the criminal justice bill from coming to the floor despite broad, bipartisan support and President Trump's endorsement.
There have been other discussions on the Hill of attaching a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller to the end-of-the-year appropriations package. Rumors also emerged Tuesday that senators may try to attach Saudi Arabia sanctions to the spending bill to punish the Saudi royal family for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Sen. Shelby said he is trying to avoid such a pile-up. "We want to keep as many legislative riders off the appropriations bill, whatever they are, if we can. We've been pretty successful thus far but it's not over yet," he noted.