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Congressional leaders invited to White House for meeting on border security

Congressional leaders invited to White House for meeting on border security
The U.S. Capitol in Washington. The top eight congressional leaders are set to meet with the president. (J. David Ake / Associated Press)

The Trump administration has invited top congressional leaders to a briefing on border security Wednesday, the first time the lawmakers have been to the White House since before a partial government shutdown began Dec. 22.

It is unclear whether the meeting will involve actual negotiations on how to reopen portions of the federal government that have been closed in a dispute over President Trump’s request for $5 billion for a wall along the southern U.S. border. There has been little negotiation between the administration and Congress over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

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The top eight congressional leaders, representing both parties in each chamber of Congress, will get a briefing from Homeland Security Department officials on border security, according to congressional aides.

The briefing comes a day before the start of the new Congress — in which political control of the House will flip from Republicans to Democrats. Democratic leaders have promised a vote Thursday to reopen the government; their plan does not include money for a wall.

Trump has said he will not support legislation that doesn’t include money for a wall. Last month, however, the administration sent mixed signals on what the president would sign, leading the Senate to unanimously support a bill with no wall funds.

The Democratic plan calls for the House to pass two funding bills. One would reopen all the closed agencies except Homeland Security for the rest of the fiscal year that ends in September. The other would fund Homeland Security until Feb. 8, allowing the department to operate normally while negotiations continue.

The Democrats’ plan is similar to what the Senate passed unanimously in mid-December in an attempt to avoid the shutdown.

But the bills may not move further unless the White House reverses its position on the wall money. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will not bring up a spending bill for Senate consideration unless it has Trump’s support.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a letter to colleagues Tuesday that the votes would make clear Republicans are responsible for the shutdown.

“We are giving the Republicans the opportunity to take yes for an answer,” Pelosi wrote. “Senate Republicans have already supported this legislation, and if they reject it now, they will be fully complicit in chaos and destruction of the president’s third shutdown of his term.”

The Democrats’ stopgap funding for the Homeland Security Department would not provide money for the wall, but would extend the department’s authority to spend $1.3 billion approved in the last budget for border security. Under that authorization, no money can be spent for a wall, but it can be used to upgrade existing border fencing.

Democrats say that dividing the money into two bills would allow reopening of the vast majority of government agencies for which funds aren’t in dispute while Congress and Trump continue to debate their disagreements over immigration and the border. But that approach would also greatly limit Trump’s leverage in negotiations.

A long list of government agencies and departments closed after midnight Dec. 21 when Congress and Trump could not agree on a spending package.

So far, the effect on the public has been limited, although officials have had to close campgrounds at Joshua Tree and Yosemite national parks and elsewhere because of a lack of toilet facilities.

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With the Christmas and New Year’s holidays coming to a close, however, the effect of the shutdown will start becoming more visible if it stretches on. Some home sales may be delayed, for example, and the Internal Revenue Service has curtailed services for taxpayers.

About 800,000 government workers won’t get paid during the shutdown, with just over half of them required to work anyway because their jobs are deemed essential for public safety. The rest are on furlough.

Many government workers who get paid on a two-week cycle will begin missing paychecks next week. In addition, a large number of employees at companies that do contract work for the government have lost their jobs or had hours cut back because of the shutdown.

The president initially said he would take responsibility for the shutdown, but has since tried to lay the blame on Democrats for not agreeing to fund the wall. In his campaign, Trump repeatedly said the wall would be paid for by Mexico.

Senate appropriators had previously agreed on $1.6 billion for border security funding for the current year — the amount the administration initially asked for. Under the Senate-passed measure, the money could be used to upgrade existing fencing, but not for a new wall.

Trump has more recently demanded $5 billion. The House under Republican control approved a bill providing that money, but Senate Republican leaders conceded they could not muster the votes to pass that amount.

The agencies closed in the shutdown include the departments of Homeland Security, State, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice and Transportation, as well as independent agencies including NASA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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