Senate to vote on funding bill, easing shutdown threat


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at left by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Republican Conference chairman, speaks to reporters about the possibility of a partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (Photo: AP)

The Senate is preparing to vote Wednesday on a short-term measure to fund the government through Feb. 8, a move that eases the risk of a shutdown and comes only after President Donald Trump backed off his demand for border wall funds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the quick turn of events, saying it was a “simple” bill but will show that Republicans, who have majority control of Congress, will finish the year by governing rather that prolonging a potential crisis.

“Republicans will continue to fill our duty to govern,” McConnell said.

He also lashed out at Democrats, who are taking control of the House in January, for failing to give Trump any of the $5 billion the president wanted for the wall along the US southern border with Mexico.

“This seems to be the reality of our political moment,” McConnell said. “It seems like political spite for the president may be winning out over sensible policy.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats would support the measure. He said Democrats oppose Trump’s border demands because the wall is “inefficient” and because Trump promised on the campaign trail that Mexico would pay for the wall, which Mexico has refused to do.

“We want smart, effective border security,” Schumer said. “That’s not a wall.”

The swift movement in Congress came after Trump moved off his demand. Trump has not said that he would sign such a temporary measure, but White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday said “he’ll take a look at that certainly.”

On Twitter, Trump appeared to respond to criticism Wednesday that he was backing down, insisting that “One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!”

Trump also argued that Mexico will pay “indirectly” for the wall because the terms of a new trade deal will boost US revenue. But that outcome is not assured.

Congress kicked into motion on a funding bill once the White House shifted its rhetoric Tuesday after days of impasse that threatened to force a partial government shutdown. Without a resolution, more than 800,000 government workers could be furloughed or sent to work without pay beginning at midnight Friday, disrupting government operations days before Christmas.

Just last week, at a televised meeting at the White House, Trump said he would be “proud” to shut the government down over the wall.

But the White House showed its willingness to budge as it became apparent the president does not have support in Congress for funding the wall at the $5 billion level.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated that Trump doesn’t want to shut down the government and said the administration was looking at ways to find the money elsewhere.

The stopgap measure would simply approve government funding at existing levels for the next several weeks, without a boost for the border. It also would include a temporary extension of a national flood insurance program, the Violence Against Women Act and other measures.

Should the funding package become law, the border funding fight would be punted to the new year and the next Congress, which could prove even more difficult for Trump with a Democratic-led House.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become House speaker, will probably be able to quickly approve a longer-term measure to keep government running in the new year. Pelosi and Schumer have made it clear they are not interested in funding Trump’s border wall.

 While the Senate is set to vote Wednesday, the schedule in the House is uncertain. It’s also unclear how many House Republicans, with just a few weeks left in the majority before relinquishing power to House Democrats, will return to Washington this week for possible votes. The House was resuming Wednesday, with a vote likely on the spending plan in the days ahead.

Negotiations kicked into gear Tuesday as the Senate’s top Republican and Democratic leaders began negotiating new proposals. During a meeting on Capitol Hill, McConnell had proposed $1.6 billion for border fencing, as outlined in a bipartisan Senate bill, plus an additional $1 billion that Trump could use on the border.

Democratic leaders immediately spurned the proposal. They called it a “slush fund.”

“We cannot accept the offer they made of a billion-dollar slush fund for the president to implement his very wrong immigration policies,” Pelosi told reporters. “So that won’t happen.”

Democrats also rejected the administration’s idea of shifting money from other accounts to pay for Trump’s wall. Schumer said there will be no wall money, “plain and simple.”

The standoff affects nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests.

Congress did pass legislation to fund much of the government through the fiscal year, until Oct. 1. But a partial shutdown would occur at midnight Friday on the remaining one-fourth of the government.

About half the workers would be forced to continue working without immediate pay. Others would be sent home. Congress often approves their pay retroactively, even if they were ordered to stay home.

Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are already funded for the year and would continue to operate as usual. The US Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, wouldn’t be affected by any government shutdown because it’s an independent agency.