WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and leaders in Congress appeared to be pulling back Tuesday from a government shutdown over his $5 billion request for border wall funds, with the first signs of movement toward a possible end to the standoff.
The White House set the tone early when Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated Trump — who just last week said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government — doesn’t want to after all. The president would consider other options and the administration was looking at ways to find the funding elsewhere, Sanders said.
It was a turnaround after days of impasse. Without a resolution, more than 800,000 government workers could be furloughed or sent to work without pay, disrupting government operations days before Christmas.
One option that has been circulating on Capitol Hill would be to simply approve government funding at existing levels, without a boost for the border, as a stopgap measure to kick the issue into the new Congress next year.
“We want to know what can pass,” Sanders said at a press briefing. “Once they make a decision and they put something on the table, we’ll make a determination on whether we’ll move forward.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed the threat of a government shutdown in today’s briefing. Video by PBS NewsHour
The turn of events kick-started negotiations that had been almost nonexistent since last week’s televised meeting at the White House, when Trump neither accepted nor rejected the Democrats’ offer. They had proposed keeping funding at current levels of $1.3 billion for border security fencing and other improvements, but not for the wall.
The Senate’s top Republican and Democratic leaders began negotiating new offers and talks were expected to continue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was confident there would not be a government shutdown Friday when funding for parts of the government expires.
McConnell said a stopgap measure could be approved, though he suggested Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become House speaker when the Democrats take control Jan. 3, would not want to saddle the new year with a budget brawl.
“If I were in her shoes, I would rather not be dealing with this year’s business next year,” McConnell said. “I would think it would be the least desirable outcome from the incoming speaker’s point of view.”
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have made it clear they are not interested in boosting funding for Trump’s border wall.
During a meeting earlier Tuesday 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, according to a senior Democratic aide unauthorized to speak about the private meeting.
Democratic leaders immediately spurned the proposal. Schumer called McConnell to reject it.
“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.
Pelosi will probably be able to quickly approve a longer-term measure to keep government running in the new year. She called it a “good sign” that the White House appeared to be backing off its demands.
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 he wants. Sanders said Tuesday there are “other ways” to secure the funding.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to shut down the government,” Sanders said on Fox News Channel. “We want to shut down the border from illegal immigration.”
Sanders pointed to the Senate’s bipartisan appropriation measure for the Department of Homeland Security, which provides $26 billion, including $1.6 billion for fencing and other barriers. It was approved by the committee in summer on a bipartisan vote.
“That’s something that we would be able to support,” she said, as long as it’s coupled with other funding.
What other funds could be tapped to satisfy the president’s demand remains unclear. Asked about using military funds, Sanders said, “There’s certainly a number of different funding sources that we’ve identified that we can use.”
It’s unclear how many House Republicans, with just a few weeks left in the majority before relinquishing power to House Democrats, will even show up midweek for possible votes. Many Republicans say it’s up to Trump and Democrats to cut a deal.
The standoff dispute could affect 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 could 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 will continue to operate as usual. The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, wouldn’t be affected by any government shutdown because it’s an independent agency.
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.