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Senate, calling Trump's bluff, OKs stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown

Senate, calling Trump's bluff, OKs stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, joined from left by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), speaks to reporters Dec. 18 at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Calling President Trump’s bluff as the holiday looms, Congress worked to avert a government shutdown by sending him a budget bill funding federal operations for about seven weeks, postponing the fight over the billions he demands for a border wall.

The Senate late Wednesday, by voice vote, easily approved the stopgap spending bill to keep the government running through Feb. 8, with no money for the wall. The House plans to follow with a vote perhaps Thursday, to send the measure to the president before a Friday night deadline.

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Senate Republicans, after a Capitol lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, said that they are confident the president would sign the spending bill, albeit reluctantly. Pence, however, did not commit publicly that Trump would do that.

On Tuesday, the administration seemed to back off its insistence on including $5 billion for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The president indicated in a tweet Wednesday that he was ready to move on, suggesting without details that the military could construct his desired wall.

“In our Country, so much money has been poured down the drain, for so many years, but when it comes to Border Security and the Military, the Democrats fight to the death,” he wrote. “We won on the Military, which is being completely rebuilt. One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!”

Money for a wide swath of government agencies is due to run out at midnight Friday. The short-term funding bill would avoid a holiday shutdown but kick the spending fight into the new year, when the House will be controlled by Democrats. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who is poised to become House speaker again, has ruled out funding for a wall, all but killing Trump’s signature campaign promise for the remainder of his term.

Conservative Republicans in the House are skeptical of giving Pelosi an opportunity for an immediate showdown with Trump. Senate Republicans, however, have consistently vowed to avoid a shutdown and see the short-term option as the only way to do that.

Trump made Republicans’ negotiations with Democrats more difficult when he said last week in an Oval Office meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that he would be “proud” to shut down the government over the border wall. That bluster ensured that Republicans would be blamed for any shutdown, which typically is widely unpopular.

“The president is right that we must secure our borders,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I hope that this [spending bill] will provide us the time to work out our differences in a thoughtful manner and reach a bipartisan consensus on important national priorities.”

Some Republicans, however, were not happy that their party was caving on providing money for the wall, which was one of Trump’s key campaign promises.

“I don’t like it,” said Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, a Trump ally. “I think we ought to stay here and fight it out and get border security done. It’s irresponsible. We’re at the end of our first quarter [of the fiscal year], and we can’t fund the government.”

Still, no Senate Republican was ready to risk an unpopular shutdown of the government — which would halt paychecks for many federal workers over the holidays — to make a point about a border wall that lacks strong support.

Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina saw a potential silver lining in Trump losing his bid for wall money. The renewed debate in the new year, when government funding again is set to expire, could open the door to a broad, bipartisan compromise on immigration, he suggested, with Trump getting wall funds in exchange for supporting legal status for more than a million so-called Dreamers who came to the country illegally as children years ago.

“We weren’t that far off on those two issues in February,” he said. “Frankly, not having fuller funding maybe gives us a better chance of getting back on that issue.”

House members involved in the current talks anticipated no problem getting the bill through their chamber. While conservatives are balking at giving up on the border wall, Pelosi has promised Democrats would overwhelmingly support the bill, likely giving Republican leaders the needed votes for passage.

One leading conservative Republican expressed opposition to the continuing resolution, known as a CR, in a Twitter message Wednesday.

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Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wrote, “Punting to Feb. 8 on a CR not only gives Democrats a Christmas present, it offers them a Valentine’s Day gift. Democrats will win, the wall will not be built, and Congress will once again have punted when we should’ve been taking a stand. The time to fight is now. Zero excuse.”

The funding bill is not expected to include disaster relief, including money to address this year’s massive fires in California, but Shelby said that will be forthcoming in the new year.

California’s Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris had asked Congress to include $9 billion for fire recovery. Feinstein has since said that the government’s existing recovery funds have enough money to meet immediate needs until additional disaster relief is negotiated.

As for a border wall, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated this week that the administration would find a way to move around existing funds in order to build it. But Schumer warned that the executive branch cannot do that without the approval of Congress.

“They cannot do it on their own, and the House and Senate will not approve a wall,” he said on the Senate floor. “From reprogrammed funds or anything else, it won’t happen.”

Despite the grumbling from Republicans who back Trump’s demand for border wall funding, the spending bill is widely expected to get through the Senate and House. Negotiations generally speed up at the end of a week as lawmakers look to get out of Washington, a phenomenon known as “jet fuel” or “jet fumes.”

Now another element is at play, quipped Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): “We have jet fuel and jingle bells.”

The unpredictable president has his own jet fumes: Trump’s plans call for him to fly Friday afternoon to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a vacation of more than two weeks.

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

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