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Senate GOP turns to time-honored budget tradition to fund wall

Republicans need 60 votes to keep emergency funds for the wall and other items

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate Republicans' policy lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate Republicans' policy lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

If at first you don’t succeed, just call it an “emergency.”

That’s the way out of a budgetary jam that Senate Republicans used this week on a $354.5 billion fiscal 2019 omnibus package that would fund President Donald Trump’s border barrier proposal and other recent requests to Congress.

Republicans will need 60 votes to advance the package Thursday under an agreement between GOP and Democratic leaders, but budget rules provide another line of defense for Democrats against inclusion of the wall money.

The Senate GOP would need to muster 60 votes to keep emergency funds for the wall and other items, because under the 1974 federal budget statute any senator can use a point of order to challenge an emergency designation, which provides an exemption from spending limits.

The situation highlights the fact that there is no easy path, political or procedural, for Trump to get the full $5.7 billion for barriers that he wants.

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Trump asked for $7 billion more than the Senate’s bipartisan Homeland Security appropriations bill would have provided; that bill was approved in committee last year by a vote of 26-5. Of that figure, $4.1 billion more would be earmarked to fund 234 miles of steel barriers along the southwest border. The earlier Senate bill included $1.6 billion for barriers and fencing along 65 miles of the border.

To get the full amount included for the wall and other items, including additional detention beds for migrants in custody, hiring Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, new drug-sniffing dog teams and more, Senate GOP appropriators designated $5.56 billion of the extra money as an emergency.

The rest of the money Trump wants for his border package appears to be freed up by other moves within the remaining spending bill allocations, steering over $1 billion more to the Homeland Security measure than was included in last year’s Senate iteration.

That’s consistent with earlier comments from Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who told CQ her subcommittee ended up with more money in conference negotiations with the House after other spending bills became law. That’s in large part because the final fiscal 2019 Labor-HHS-Education bill would technically provide $1.2 billion less than the earlier Senate version of that measure would.

In fact, the “procurement, construction and improvements” account within Customs and Border Protection would get $1 billion more in the new GOP-drafted package than in the previous Senate version under regular appropriations. That same set of programs is boosted by an additional $4.3 billion through emergency funds in the latest Senate GOP iteration, for a total of $7.3 billion, or more than triple the initial version approved in committee last year.

Together, the budget moves rid Senate Republicans of the need to make cuts elsewhere within nondefense programs to make Trump’s requests fit within this year’s budget cap, set at $597 billion. Based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, the six-bill spending package the House will take up Wednesday, sans Homeland Security funding, leaves room for only $47 billion more in nondefense funds for that bill.

Depending on how Financial Services spending is treated in a final deal — the Senate GOP allocated $400 million less than House Democrats did in that bill — there’s only room under the spending cap for an extra $800 million to $1.2 billion more than in the earlier bipartisan Senate Homeland Security bill. That means lawmakers can’t come close to meeting Trump’s demands without making large cuts elsewhere or agreeing to some middle ground on emergency funds.

House Democrats Still Mulling Border Proposal

House Democrats, however, haven’t yet released a border security strategy of their own, aside from reopening government first and negotiating later.

The House will vote on another stopgap funding measure this week for DHS programs, with a continuing resolution that would run through Feb. 28. The measure also contains some language related to paying back furloughed employees.

The House bill, which would essentially continue border barrier funding at the $1.3 billion level appropriated last year, was introduced shortly after Senate leaders announced that they had reached agreement on a two-part voting process for the two parties’ dueling approaches.

Under the deal announced on the Senate floor, the chamber called up a House-passed $14.2 billion disaster aid bill that contains stopgap funding for all currently closed agencies through Feb. 8. The first vote will be to limit debate on the Senate GOP-drafted omnibus package containing the extra border funds, as well as several immigration policy proposals, a slightly slimmer disaster aid title and other miscellaneous add-ons.

After that, the Senate would vote to limit debate on a proposal that roughly aligns with the underlying House version. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had previously said he wouldn’t bring legislation to the floor that didn’t have Trump’s support.

“For the first time, we will get a vote on whether to open up the government without any decision one way or another on border security,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are getting more weary of the impasse as the shutdown passes its one-month mark. In the House, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., circulated a letter urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to guarantee a floor vote on border security funding and immigration policy proposals by the end of February, in order to entice Republicans to back immediately reopening the government.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters at the White House that he didn’t see any wiggle room from Democratic leaders, even as Trump had offered what to him were tough concessions on immigration policy. Pelosi is demanding “unconditional surrender,” Rubio said, calling such a position “illogical.”

John T. Bennett, Paul M. Krawzak and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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