GOP leaders back border deal, despite protests on the right
WASHINGTON (AP) — GOP congressional leaders on Tuesday swung behind a hard-won agreement to prevent a new government shutdown and finance construction of more barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, selling it as a necessary compromise even as some Republicans on the right voice opposition.
It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump will support the deal, although GOP negotiators said they were hopeful.
Top Republicans Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Kevin McCarthy in the House both claimed victory, crowing about Democratic concessions on new border barriers and a late-stage battle over the ability of federal authorities to arrest and detain immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
“You’ve got to remember where Nancy Pelosi was. She has said, ‘No money for a wall.’ That’s not the case,” McCarthy said on CNBC Tuesday morning. “The Democrats have now agreed to more than 55 miles of new barrier.”
However, negotiators said it’s pretty much the deal that Trump could have gotten in December. Aides revealed details under condition of anonymity because the agreement is tentative.
Republicans and the White House were desperate to avoid another bruising shutdown. They tentatively agreed Monday night to far less money for Trump’s border wall than the White House’s $5.7 billion wish list, settling for a figure of nearly $1.4 billion, according to congressional aides. The huge funding measure, which combines seven spending bills into one, runs through the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.
Details might not be released until Wednesday, but the pact came in time to alleviate any threat of a second partial government shutdown this weekend.
At the White House on Tuesday, spokesman Hogan Gidley was noncommittal: “We want to focus on what’s actually in the document. Until we see that, it’s going to be very difficult to have a conversation about what we will and won’t accept.
The agreement means 55 miles (88 kilometers) of new fencing — constructed through existing designs such as metal slats instead of a concrete wall — but far less than the 215 miles (345 kilometers) the White House demanded in December. The fencing would be built in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. It closely mirrors Trump’s original budget request from last winter.
The split-the-differences compromise contains plenty to anger lawmakers on the right and left — more border fencing than many Democrats would like and too little for conservative Republicans — but its authors praised it as a genuine compromise that would keep the government open and allow everyone to move on.
“With the government being shut down, the specter of another shutdown this close, what brought us back together I thought tonight was we didn’t want that to happen” again, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
“Our staffs are just working out the details,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
The pact also includes increases for new technologies such as advanced screening at border entry points, humanitarian aid sought by Democrats and additional customs officers.
This weekend, Shelby pulled the plug on the talks over Democratic demands to limit immigrant detentions by federal authorities, frustrating some of his fellow negotiators, but Democrats yielded ground on that issue in a fresh round of talks on Monday.
Asked if Trump would back the deal, Shelby said: “We believe from our dealings with them and the latitude they’ve given us, they will support it. We certainly hope so.”
But Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, a Trump ally, said the barrier money in the agreement was inadequate. He warned late Monday that “any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you will have to explain.” Conservatives like Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who has the ear of Trump, also came out in opposition.
“I would hope that Sean Hannity and all the other people you mentioned aren’t running this government. This was a bipartisan deal, Senate and House, Republican and Democrat,” Democrat Lowey said on CNN.
Trump traveled to El Paso, Texas, for a campaign-style rally Monday night focused on immigration and border issues. He has been adamant that Congress approve money for a wall along the Mexican border, though he no longer repeats his 2016 mantra that Mexico will pay for it, and he took to the stage as lawmakers back in Washington were announcing their breakthrough.
“They said that progress is being made with this committee,” Trump told his audience, referring to the congressional bargainers. “Just so you know, we’re building the wall anyway.”
Trump aides are discussing using executive action to access other pots of money to build the wall without Congress, even if Trump backs the compromise.
“We’ll take as much money as you can give us, and then we will go off and find the money someplace else – legally – in order to secure that southern barrier,” acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News Friday. He said more than $5.7 billon had been identified that Trump could tap.
Democrats carried more leverage into the talks after besting Trump on the 35-day shutdown but showed flexibility in hopes of winning Trump’s signature. After yielding on border barriers, Democrats focused on reducing funding for detention beds to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The agreement yielded curbed funding, overall, for ICE detention beds, which Democrats promised would mean the agency would hold fewer detainees than the roughly 49,000 detainees held on Feb. 10, the most recent date for which figures were available. Democrats said the number of beds would be ratcheted down to 40,520 by year’s end.
But a proposal to cap at 16,500 the number of detainees caught in areas away from the border — a limit Democrats say was aimed at preventing overreach by the agency — ran into its own Republican wall.
Democrats dropped the demand in the Monday round of talks, and the mood in the Capitol improved markedly.
The recent shutdown left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Trump’s poll numbers tumbling. As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days, agreeing to the current temporary reopening without getting money for the wall.
The president’s supporters have suggested that Trump could use executive powers to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though he could face challenges in Congress or the courts.
“The president still has a few more tools in his toolbox,” GOP Leader McCarthy said.
The negotiations hit a rough patch Sunday amid a dispute over curbing ICE, the federal agency that Republicans see as an emblem of tough immigration policies and Democrats accuse of often going too far.
The border debate got most of the attention, but it’s just part of a major spending measure to fund a bevy of Cabinet departments. A collapse of the negotiations would have imperiled another upcoming round of budget talks that are required to prevent steep spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Darlene Superville and Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Jill Colvin in El Paso, Texas, contributed to this report.