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With Trump’s Wall Off the Table, Obamacare Takes Center Stage in Shutdown Showdown

Funding for subsidies leads remaining issues

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, right, Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, center, and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin leave the Democratic Senate policy luncheon in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, right, Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, center, and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin leave the Democratic Senate policy luncheon in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It appears President Donald Trump will settle for enhanced funding for border security instead of his signature wall.

Talks about averting a government shutdown progressed Tuesday after funding for building the wall between the U.S. and Mexico fell off the negotiating table, but lawmakers still had to work through a thicket of issues — including health care funding and family planning. They have until midnight Friday to reach a deal before government funding runs out.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer appeared to have a disagreement over the participants in the endgame negotiations, with Schumer saying talks have progressed better without interference from the White House, pointing to Trump’s request for border wall funding.

But McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, put some of the onus on Schumer.

“Having been in his role when you had a Democratic president, dealing with the minority leader of the Senate, unless you have a little bitty minority, is important to getting the outcome,” he said.

Schumer and the Trump administration are new dancing partners for McConnell, who worked with an assortment of representatives of the Obama administration over the years, perhaps having the most success with then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Senate appropriators said Tuesday it seemed that former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, appeared to be the key negotiator on the administration side.

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that there had been “some challenges in getting Sen. Schumer to interact with the White House.”

No wall funding

But Schumer, a New York Democrat, who followed McConnell in speaking with reporters, said that when it came to funding for a border wall, there was nothing to discuss with Trump.

Schumer said McConnell wanted him to “negotiate the wall” with the president, but he thought it was the Kentucky Republican who needed to tell the White House that funding for the wall would not be included in the spending package.

Shortly before that exchange, while stressing that he’s not a member of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker told reporters the lack of wall funding did not mean the Trump administration would have to go without increased funds for security.

“I understand there’s a substantial figure in the bill on border security and that that’s an agreeable solution,“ the Mississippi Republican said.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, asked if it was good that Trump stepped back from the immediate wall demand, said, “It’s very helpful.

“Duh! The Democrats said they weren’t going to support anything that had a wall on it,” McCain said. 

But Trump said the wall would still be built, eventually. On the campaign trail, he had repeatedly said that Mexico would ultimately pay for the substantial construction costs.

“The wall is going to get built and we’re setting record numbers in terms of stopping people from coming in and stopping drugs from coming,” Trump said Tuesday. “We’re going to have the wall built. I don’t know what people are talking. I watch these shows, and the pundits in the morning, they don’t know what they’re talking about. The wall gets built, 100 percent.”

As for the week’s immediate question of federal funding, Wicker said he expected a one-week continuing resolution just to give lawmakers time to process the omnibus spending bill, though McConnell had no interest in discussing the potential for further stopgap spending Tuesday.

Other challenges

Lawmakers and aides on both sides of the aisle said that a number of potentially crippling policy riders remained on the table for debate, with Democrats pointing to GOP insistence on some restrictions on family planning funds.

But Sen. Patty Murray said the Democratic strategy was getting favorable results so far in taking some contentious items off the table.

“President Trump laid out his demands for this spending bill — and thankfully, Democrats and many Republicans in Congress have so far stood together to say, ‘Absolutely not.’ And so far, it looks like it is working,” the Washington Democrat said. “President Trump has dropped all demands to defund Planned Parenthood in this bill.”

Republicans and Democrats were still debating how to address the need for cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurance companies to help lower-income individuals pay for the health care under the 2010 health care overhaul.

The House GOP still has a lawsuit over the legality of the payments, which goes back to the administration of President Barack Obama, but some Senate Republicans were reluctant to turn off the spigot.

“I think we want to keep the markets stable, and it’s probably going to require that the existing mechanism for doing that is cost-sharing subsidies. So they’ll be in place for a while,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be language in the final spending plan forcing members to vote for the payments, though. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price might be able to act on his own.

“I think the administration probably can do that,” Thune said. “It could end up being part of the negotiation on the spending bill. I don’t know that yet.”

Thune said the discussion on that issue would likely need to be between the administration and Senate Democrats directly, potentially pointing to executive action.

“I think ensuring that there is stability in the insurance marketplace until such time as we can do a repeal and replace bill and put it on the president’s desk is going to be pretty important,” the South Dakota Republican said.

Sen. Susan Collins said she would have significant concerns about any lapses in the cost-sharing subsidy payments.

“The subsidies for cost-sharing on deductibles and co-pays are going to people who make 250 percent of the poverty level or less. It’s to offset their costs,” the Maine Republican said.

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Capitol Lens | Before sunset