Funding government without border wall appears back on table

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump appeared to back off his demand for $5 billion to build a border wall, signaling for the first time that he might be open to a deal that would avoid a partial government shutdown.

The White House set the tone Tuesday when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated that Trump doesn't want to shut down the government, though just last week he said he'd be "proud" to do so. The president would consider other options and the administration was looking at ways to find the money 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 beginning at midnight Friday, 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 month. The chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., confirmed late Tuesday his office was preparing legislation to keep government funded, likely into February. The White House preference was for a longer-term package, although the conversation remained fluid and Trump has been known to quickly change course, said a person familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to discuss them by name.

"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."

She also said the president "has asked every agency to look and see if they have money that can be used."

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 proposals and talks were expected to continue.

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Migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border
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Migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border
A migrant girl from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, cries after running away from tear gas thrown by the U.S. border control near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Three Honduran migrants huddle in the riverbank amid tear gas fired by U.S. agents on the Mexico-U.S. border after they and a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- cover their faces next to the bordering Tijuana River near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, after the US Border Patrol threw tear gas to disperse them after an alleged verbal dispute, on November 25, 2018. - US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants, part of the 'caravan' condemned by President Donald Trump, tried to breach a fence from Tijuana, authorities announced. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tear gas thrown by the US Border Patrol to disperse Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- after an alleged verbal dispute is seen near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, close to the S-Mexico border, on November 25, 2018. - US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants, part of the 'caravan' condemned by President Donald Trump, tried to breach a fence from Tijuana, authorities announced. (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A photojournalist is surrounded in a cloud of tear gas released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, attempted to illegally cross the border into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, covers his face after being affected by tear gas released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after hundreds attempted to illegally cross into the U.S from Mexico from Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A migrant reacts from tear gas thrown by the U.S. border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States and journalists flee tear gas released by U.S. border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, return to Mexico after being hit by tear gas by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after attempting to illegally cross the border wall into the United States in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
U.S. soldiers and U.S. border patrols fire tear gas towards migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, from the U.S.side of the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Migrants and members of the media run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Migrants cover their faces, as they run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A migrant covers his face as he runs from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Migrants run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was confident there would not be a government shutdown. McConnell said a stopgap measure could be approved, though he suggested that House Minority Leader 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.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have made it clear they are not interested in funding 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. Schumer said there will be no wall money, "plain and simple."

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. 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.

But House Democrats largely reject the Senate's bill because it includes 65 miles of additional fencing along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

Trump had campaigned on the promise that Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico has refused.

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.

Shelby expected the stopgap measure, which would cover the seven appropriation bills for those departments, would pass. "Who would want to shut the government down?" he said.

Congress did pass legislation to fund much of the government through the fiscal year, until Oct. 1. But a partial shutdown would 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.

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