Pelosi & McConnell: Time to cut a deal?

Nancy Pelosi of Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., attend a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring the Office of Strategic Services in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, Washington’s odd couple, have a limited set of mutual legislative interests in a capital beset by dysfunction and awash in presidential politics.

But automatic spending cuts, the legacy of a budget breakdown eight years ago, are bringing the power duo together to see if a deal can be made.

At stake are tens of billions of dollars for military and domestic programs, money that brings together a broad spectrum of lawmakers, including pragmatists hoping to see the Capitol function.

There is plenty of time to reach agreement, but failure could usher in spending cuts of $125 billion next year, a 10 percent drop from current levels. Looming over it all is the record 35-day partial government shutdown earlier this year, still a fresh memory and a disruption no one wants to repeat.

McConnell, R-Ky., and Pelosi, D-Calif., have been players in numerous bipartisan budget deals, and their mutual support is an essential ingredient if any new one is to succeed. Early signs seem iffy at best.

President Donald Trump is not a fan of the effort. Trump’s budget proposes an increase in defense spending to $750 billion but would keep the cuts to domestic agencies and foreign aid in place, though that was an impossible formula to sustain even before Democrats took back the House.

Forces inside Trump’s White House appear opposed as well, at least to the kind of everybody-gets-something bipartisan deals that can make it through the system. Three previous agreements have denied Trump the money he demanded to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and he has signed them reluctantly.

The White House seems more interested in speedy action on legislation to increase the government’s borrowing limit, which must be passed to avoid defaulting on its obligations. Trump’s team worries that marrying the two issues might prove too toxic for GOP allies on Capitol Hill.

On the spending picture, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, architect of Trump’s annual budget from his former post as budget director, is seen as an obstacle, along with current budget chief Russ Vought, a hard-line conservative.

The White House has made it plain in private that it could live with a fallback deal of a freeze at current levels, even though that would deny the Pentagon its requested increase.

Trump tweeted this month: “House Democrats want to negotiate a $2 TRILLION spending increase but can’t even pass their own plan. We can’t afford it anyway, and it’s not happening!” Trump’s $2 trillion figure reflects what a deal could cost over 10 years.

Pelosi does have some problems on her left flank, which this month blocked a leadership-backed measure to set new budget limits reflecting Democratic domestic priorities. Liberals such as Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California stifled the plan, saying it shortchanged domestic programs.

“It’s obvious they can’t agree among themselves how much they want to spend,” McConnell recently told reporters. He said the only possibility he sees is a bipartisan agreement that “the most liberal members of her party don’t vote for and the most conservative members of my party don’t vote for.”

McConnell insists he and Pelosi can deliver as they have in the past, and both have long histories on the powerful House and Senate Appropriations committees, for years as the top negotiators over the annual foreign aid bill. But Washington’s partisanship and the battles over Democratic investigations of Trump aren’t helping now, and Trump’s unpredictability could unravel things at any time.

What’s more, there isn’t pressure to reach a deal quickly. At immediate stake is the setting of upper boundaries, or “caps,” on about $1.3 trillion in annual appropriations passed by Congress for agency operations. Actually divvying up the money comes during lengthy consideration of 12 individual spending bills.

Both the House and Senate routinely bust the Sept. 30 deadline for the spending legislation, and both the House and Senate Appropriations committees plan to begin work on their 12 bills regardless. Washington’s rules dictate that the spending cuts wouldn’t actually strike until next year.

Past deals, including the 2011 budget pact between President Barack Obama and GOP leaders, have typically hitched a ride on must-do legislation to increase the government’s borrowing cap, though the need to raise that limit doesn’t come into play until late this summer or early fall.

Also, McConnell may be more eager for a deal than Pelosi. Senate rules and traditions mandate that the process in that chamber be bipartisan if it is to succeed.

But in the House, majority Democrats don’t need GOP help at the outset to pass the bills.

The leader of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is kicking off action this week, starting with health and education programs.

For now, the two sides plan to plug along in hopes of forestalling the prospect of across-the-board cuts and minimizing the chaos.

“Pelosi and McConnell do not want to go through another government shutdown,” said Bill Hoagland, a longtime Senate budget aide and an analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center.


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Spending $330 billion to avoid government shutdown

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, center, is joined by, from left, House Republican Conference chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., as she talks about the bipartisan border security compromise needed to avert another government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It’s not just about President Donald Trump’s border wall.

The border security issues that sparked a 35-day government shutdown are but one element of a massive $330 billion-plus spending measure that wraps seven bills into one, funding nine Cabinet agencies, including the departments of Justice, State, Agriculture and Commerce. End-stage fights over unrelated policy provisions produced a deadlock, so efforts to extend soon-to-expire laws like the federal flood insurance program were dropped.

Highlights of the measure, which runs 1,768 page of legislative text and explanation, include:



There’s nearly $1.4 billion for 55 miles of new barriers, well less than Trump wanted. There would be curbs on where construction could occur. There’s more than $1 billion for other forms of border security, including improvements in surveillance equipment, hiring 600 additional customs officers, more immigration judges and $414 million in humanitarian aid for unauthorized immigrants who are detained.



Most of the bill deals with spending minutia such as a $1 billion increase to gear up for the 2020 census, an almost 4 percent budget increase for NASA and an $11.3 billion budget for the IRS. Most agencies are kept relatively level compared to last year, and the measure rejects big spending cuts — such as a $12 billion cut to foreign aid and the State Department — proposed by Trump.



Trump has proposed a pay freeze for civilian federal employees, but the measure would guarantee those workers a 1.9 percent increase, according to No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland. The military got a 2.6 percent increase in legislation that passed Congress last year.



Lawmakers in both parties eyed the measure to renew the government’s troubled federal flood insurance program through Sept. 30, but it and a full menu of expiring laws collectively known as “extenders” went unaddressed in the end. That meant a host of miscellaneous provisions were dropped in the final stages.

A drive by Senate Republicans to extend the Violence Against Women Act was blocked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who feared it would undercut efforts to update the law this spring.

Meanwhile, an extension of a Medicaid provision on home- and community-based nursing care, grants for the poor under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and fixes to a trust fund that finances dredging and maintenance or ports and harbors will also have to advance later.

A bid by Pelosi to win back pay for federal contractors laid off during the recent shutdown was blocked by the White House.



There’s $3 billion to help state and local law enforcement, including for combatting opioids abuse. There are funds for the Coast Guard’s first new icebreaker in four decades, increases for roads and mass transit, and money for clean air and water projects and foreign aid.



For fans of the truly obscure, there’s a provision to exempt sugar beet trucks in rural Oregon from length limits. It would also add exemptions to federal truck weight rules in the state of Kentucky.


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Republicans proved they don’t really want Trump’s wall

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, joined by Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., center, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the top Senate border security negotiator, speaks to reporters about the bipartisan compromise worked out last night to avert another government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republicans in Congress never really wanted to build the wall.

It wasn’t a priority like tax cuts, which are a raison d’être of Republican domestic policy. And it wasn’t their own campaign pledge to voters, like the vow to repeal and replace Obamacare that became hard to keep.

President Donald Trump’s signature campaign rally cry — “Build the Wall!” — was always more of a slogan than a policy. A “metaphor,” Republicans have called it — shorthand for the more complicated trade-offs that would be required for an immigration-and-border security deal. A “MacGuffin,” as one former top GOP aide put it Tuesday, only there to motivate action — in Trump’s case, for support.

That’s why funding the wall languished when Republicans controlled Congress, and why they now appear willing to take far less than the $5.7 billion Trump demanded in a deal with Democrats to prevent another partial government shutdown.

Alfonso Aguilar, a Department of Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush administration, said Trump’s wall became so “toxic” it drove away support. Even routine funding for border barriers and fences that have anchored security policy for more than a decade — some 700 miles already being built— became off limits.

“The problem is the president only talks about the big, beautiful wall,” said Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

And for Trump, he said, that quickly becomes a launching point to rail against drug smugglers and human traffickers in caravans at the border, though it’s clear that the vast majority of immigrants trying to enter the country illegally are not such criminals.

“The language hurts Trump,” Aguilar said. “What we didn’t like was the tone about the wall.”

Of course Republicans want to secure the borders. Both parties do. But they have different views on how to do it. And more importantly for counting votes in the House and Senate, they diverge on how much to pay for it and what other immigration changes to swap in return.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, recalled an early conversation when he asked Trump on the presidential campaign trail: ”‘You understand it’s way more complex than just building a wall?’ He said he understood that.”

Michael Steel, a top aide to then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the party agrees that border security should be a priority in Congress. But he said, “no one believes a Great Wall of China-style edifice along the Rio Grande is the answer to our problems.”

It was against that backdrop late last year Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, about to take majority control of the House and become speaker, held firm against Trump’s demands and called the wall immoral. Democrats reminded voters that Trump once promised Mexico would pay for it.

Pelosi all but dared Republicans to show their cards, essentially taunting Trump during a meeting at the White House in December that he did not have the votes to support his demand for billions of dollars of wall money.

She had a point. Republicans had not pushed their bill forward during two years of control of the House and the Senate as well as the White House, partly because the GOP budget hawks would balk at the spending and centrists wouldn’t want to fund the wall without addressing other immigration provisions, including deportations for young immigrants in the U.S. illegally, known as “Dreamers.”

To prove Pelosi wrong, House Republicans quickly muscled Trump’s $5.7 billion border wall money to passage as one of the final votes of their majority. GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy and others took a victory lap.

But the Republican success was short-lived. The bill went nowhere in the Senate and Congress left town for the Christmas holidays, sparking what would become a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

On Tuesday, Trump said he wasn’t “thrilled” with the compromise to prevent another shutdown, which would begin on Saturday. The bipartisan budget deal emerging in Congress provides nearly $1.4 billion for barriers and fencing, but no new money for the wall.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged Trump to hold off any decisions until he read through the details of the package. The GOP leader called it a “pretty good deal.”

A top Republican negotiator, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, put it this way: “We’re going to build a structure. And we’re going to secure America.”

Trump has not said whether he will support the deal, but he appeared to have already moved on to the next fight. As the agreement was coming together Monday night behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, the president was test driving a new campaign slogan at a rally with thousands in the border city of El Paso, Texas.

When the crowd erupted with the build-the-wall chant, Trump offered a new one, for his 2020 re-election campaign.

“You really mean ‘finish the wall,’” he said, “because we built it.”


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New budget deal: Both sides got less

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., flanked by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, two of the border security negotiators, speaks with reporters about the bipartisan compromise worked out last night to avert another government shutdown, at the Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The undisputed grand prize at stake for President Donald Trump in the border security talks was money for his proposed wall with Mexico. He flat out got much less than he demanded.

But to clinch the deal that congressional leaders hope to approve this week — and that they’re prodding Trump to sign or risk a new government shutdown — Democrats gave ground, too. Especially in their bid to fetter the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s ability to detain unauthorized immigrants.

It’s the kind of accord that, for now, has elicited few bellows of triumph by either side. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday called it “a pretty good deal” that Trump should sign. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the lead House negotiator, said, “When you have a bipartisan process, you split the win.”

A look at the deal’s key provisions:


Democrats went head-to-head with Trump over his campaign mantra, which riles each party’s core voters to near frenzies. Score this one for Democrats.

Trump shut the government down for a record 35 days, starting before Christmas, when Democrats refused to give him $5.7 billion to build more than 200 miles of boundary wall. He even thumbed his nose at a bipartisan Senate bill last year that would have provided $1.6 billion for border barriers.

He ended up with just under $1.4 billion — plus a shutdown that hurt millions of people and inflicted political damage on the GOP.


That’s enough money for 55 miles of new construction. But the deal would limit the design to techniques already in use by existing border barriers, like vertical steel slats. Democrats say the language precludes a solid, unbroken “wall.”

Democrats won a prohibition against barriers in and near a butterfly center in Texas, but not in all the stretches along the border they sought to protect, said a Democratic aide who described still-evolving details on condition of anonymity.

Republicans note that early in the shutdown, Nancy Pelosi — now House speaker — said Democrats would provide nothing for the “immoral” wall. Though Democrats clearly had leverage in the talks, no one thought they’d get by without providing some money for barriers.

Still, Trump is looking for other money in the federal budget to shift to wall building. Depending on what he does, stay tuned for clamorous votes in Congress and lawsuits.


For many Democrats, Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, symbolizes what they consider Trump’s punitive policies and enforcement of immigration laws. Some of their most liberal and visible partisans, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, want to abolish it.

As a tradeoff for money for barriers and to soothe their progressive wing, Democrats demanded curbs on ICE’s ability to detain immigrants. They got less than they wanted.

They completely abandoned their push to limit ICE to holding a daily average of 16,500 undocumented immigrants caught inside the U.S. They said that cap would have forced ICE to go after immigrants with criminal records, not those with minor immigration violations.

In addition, bargainers agreed to give ICE enough money to house 40,520 detainees by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The agency currently holds around 49,000. So while the deal would put that figure on a downward arc, it provides enough money for a daily average this year exceeding 45,000 detainees.

That’s thousands above last year’s level. And ICE has access to other budget funds to potentially hold more than 50,000 detainees.

That’s not good, “given that ICE is an agency that needs to be reined in,” said Kerri Talbot, a top official at The Immigration Hub, which favors easing immigration restrictions. A GOP summary of the accord said ICE was given “more than enough flexibility” for future “surges” in illegal immigration.


As final pieces of the deal fall into place, Democrats say they expect hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade often shabby immigrant holding facilities. They say there will be additional money for alternatives to detention, like ankle bracelets and officials who monitor immigrants released until court hearings.

This would be a relatively modest win for Democrats.


Probably, and that would be a huge relief for the GOP. Polls showed the public blamed Trump and congressional Republicans more than Democrats for the shutdown that ended Jan. 25, and GOP distaste for another one is palpable.

Even so, it’s hard to be certain with Trump. Asked how certain he was that there’d be no renewed shutdown this weekend, McConnell told a reporter, “I sure hope not.”


McConnell and Pelosi will have a lot on the line this week.

For Pelosi, D-Calif., who reclaimed the speaker’s gavel last month, steering the deal through the House will test her ability to command what could be an unwieldy 235 Democrats. Some of the most liberal may rebel against the bill’s money for barriers and less than stringent controls on ICE. She’ll need to minimize Democratic defections and will likely need GOP support for the 218 votes necessary for passage.

McConnell should have a less difficult time in the more pragmatic Senate. His toughest task may be persuading Trump to not abruptly turn against the legislation — a habit Trump has displayed before.


AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and reporter Andrew Taylor contributed.


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White House: Another government shutdown possible

Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and Director of the Office of Management, listens during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The White House is not ruling out another government shutdown, as lawmakers continue to negotiate funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

In Sunday talk show appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said “you absolutely cannot” rule out the possibility that the government may shutter again on Friday. But Mulvaney also said that Trump was willing to explore funding alternatives.

The president has asked for $5.7 billion. Talks are centered around far less, around $1.6 billion. Mulvaney said that if Congress approves a lesser amount, Trump could make up the difference from elsewhere in the government or, if needed, the president could declare a national emergency.


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