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Amid border wall debate, House and Senate Republicans aligned on spending issues, for once

GOP unity over border wall has lasted for seven-plus weeks now but could soon be tested

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, have largely been on the same page when it comes to border wall funding President Donald Trump, center, has advocated. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, have largely been on the same page when it comes to border wall funding President Donald Trump, center, has advocated. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For years, House Republicans would blame the Senate if they didn’t get their way in spending negotiations. But now, amid an ongoing border wall funding dispute, GOP lawmakers in both chambers are finally on the same page.

The symbiotic relationship is oddly timed with House Republicans in the minority. In the previous two Congresses, Republicans held the majority in both chambers — first under former President Barack Obama and then under President Donald Trump — but rarely agreed on appropriations matters.

Even Trump’s border wall funding request had divided House and Senate Republicans for most of the last Congress, with the House appropriating more money for it than the Senate. It wasn’t until just before Christmas last year — when House Republicans convinced Trump to shut down the government to continue their fight for at least $5 billion in border wall funding — that the GOP became one on that issue.

The unity between House and Senate Republicans over the wall has held for more than seven weeks now, even as they and Trump reluctantly agreed to reopen the government for three weeks without Democrats giving them any funding for the border barrier.

As their fight for the wall continues and a new Feb. 15 government funding deadline approaches, that unity could soon be tested. Trump has said, absent an agreement to fund the wall, he’s prepared to shut down the government again or declare a national emergency to divert defense funds to build it — solutions that are likely to cause some heartburn among congressional Republicans.

But for now, as Trump prepares to stand before Congress on Tuesday and deliver his State of the Union address, GOP lawmakers have his back.

The president is going to use the speech to continue to make the case for a southern wall. He has signaled he may also use it to declare a national emergency on the border, but he has also suggested he may wait to see what solution a House-Senate conference committee proposes.

Also watch: What is a national emergency? How Congress gave the White House broad, far-reaching powers

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A crucial time

In interviews over the past several weeks before and after the shutdown ended, House and Senate Republicans have primarily attributed their unity over the border wall to what Trump has often called the “crisis” at the border.

“We’re behind the president. The president is right on the issue,” Texas Rep. Roger Williams said.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso agreed, saying that standing with Trump on the wall and border security was made easier by Speaker Nancy Pelosi being so dug in against it.  

“People realize just how extreme that position is,” the Wyoming Republican said. “So we’re united against such an extreme position.”

House Republicans were more willing to acknowledge the change in their posture toward their colleagues across the Rotunda than vice versa.

“On a lot of issues,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise joked when Roll Call brought up the two sides’ history of being at odds over spending matters.

The Louisiana Republican attributed the sudden alignment to a new working relationship that’s been formed between congressional leaders and the president, as well as recognition of the problem at the border.

“I think they recognize how important this is,” Scalise said of Senate Republicans. “It’s been a top priority of the president’s since he came into the White House.”

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, meanwhile, chose to comment on the premise of that line of query. “That’s kind of a metaphysical question,” he said. Cornyn recently stepped down as the chamber’s No. 2 Republican after being term-limited. 

Sen. Roy Blunt, a senior appropriator, was willing to acknowledge the difference. The Missouri Republican attributed it to the fact that the some of the larger funding measures on which the two chambers often disagree, such as the Labor-Health and Humans Services appropriations bill, had already been signed into law before the start of fiscal 2019.

“This is different than past battles partly because 75 percent of the government is already funded, partly because we are largely in agreement on all of the spending issues,” Blunt said. In addition to being subcommittee chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Blunt is the No. 4 Republican in leadership as the policy committee chairman. 

Political dynamic

There’s also a new political dynamic in the Senate this year, as Republicans have more seats to defend in the upcoming 2020 cycle than they did last cycle.

“You have a lot of people up, including the majority leader himself, in places where the president is pretty popular,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said. “If you don’t fight with the president, you run the risk of losing that political support.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in Kentucky where he’s faced primaries in the past. While he has to deal with his own race, his decisions are more motivated by how Republicans at large can hang on to the Senate majority, Cole said. Pelosi has a similar motivation in negotiating on behalf of House Democrats, but if she wants to get anything done, she will need to learn to work with the Republican president and Senate, he added.

“McConnell has shown he knows how to keep his members together every bit as well as she knows how to keep hers together,” Cole said.

North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Republicans aren’t happy about the current state of negotiations, with Democrats largely refusing to budge on wall funding, but they remain in the fight together.

“I have been impressed with how unified the House and the Senate have been on this issue because there’s a legitimacy that this is not just about how much we’re going to appropriate for something,” he said. “We feel like this is a righteous cause. And I feel like that’s been the motivation.”

The unity has been a welcome surprise to most House Republicans, especially now that they’re in the minority and not able to fight with the same strength they had in prior years.

“It’s been encouraging to us,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Johnson of Louisiana said. “I said in an interview just a couple days ago, ‘Thankfully, we have the Senate.’ And then I stopped myself. I never thought I would say that actual phrase. The Senate is going to be our safeguard?”

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