Senate Republicans move to avoid shutdown; Trump still sees political benefits

Washington Post

Senate Republicans on Wednesday took major steps toward their goal of keeping the government open through the midterm elections, while President Donald Trump publicly mused about the benefits of a pre-election shutdown.

The Senate passed a batch of government funding bills with bipartisan support, as Republicans made concessions and avoided controversial issues to win over Democrats.

GOP leaders hope moving the bills will help avoid a government shutdown when current funding runs out Sept. 30. A shutdown could sour voters on GOP leadership and draw attention from the strong economy and Trump's Supreme Court pick, Republicans fear.

But as party leaders in Congress worked to stave off a shutdown, Trump again raised the possibility of closing the government.

Calling in to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh's show, Trump said he may wait until after the November midterm elections to shut down the government, but he suggested a shutdown - part of a bid to win funding for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border - could be good for the GOP.

"Now, the shutdown could also take place after the election. I happen to think it's a great political thing because people want border security," Trump told Limbaugh.

Trump said "there are many people within our party that are good people" who are not in favor of a pre-election shutdown.

"They'd rather do it after. They don't agree on doing it before, and I accept their opinion, but I happen to think it would be a good thing to do before," Trump said. "I actually think we'd get more and there'd be more pressure on the other side because we're doing it because the Democrats are not giving us the votes."

Trump in recent days has repeatedly threatened to shut down the government over immigration policy, demanding funding for a proposed border wall that he said during the campaign would be paid for by Mexico. "A Government Shutdown is a very small price to pay for a safe and Prosperous America!" he wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

GOP leaders don't want a shutdown at all, and certainly not ahead of midterm elections that will determine whether they retain control of Congress. Current funding runs out Sept. 30, so Congress has to pass new spending legislation by that date - and Trump has to sign it - to stave off a shutdown.

GOP senators have been working hard to give Trump what he has said he wants - individual pieces of legislation to sign, instead of a massive catchall package of the kind he's threatened to veto. Several lawmakers credited Trump's stance with prodding them into action.

"I think that has provided impetus and is at least in part the reason that the Senate has gotten up off its ice-cold lazy butt and started doing its job. And we're doing our job," said Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., an Appropriations Committee member.

"When we finish this process, I think the president will feel differently about shutting down government," Kennedy added. "I could be wrong."

The annual appropriations process has been moving along at a rapid clip compared with the stuttering pace of recent years, with Senate Republicans avoiding contentious policy riders to be able to produce bipartisan bills.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 92 to 6 to approve a four-bill package totaling $154 billion in spending for 2019 to pay for the Interior and environment; financial services and general government; Transportation and Housing; and Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

That brings to seven the total number of spending bills the Senate has passed this year - compared with zero at this time last year. However, agreement must still be reached on each of them with the House, a process that won't be easy because Republicans there have taken a partisan approach and included a number of policy provisions on the environment and other issues that won't fly with Democrats whose votes are needed in the Senate.

There are 12 spending bills that Congress must pass annually to fund all of government, but partisan disagreements often mean they're glommed together or delayed for months or not even passed at all, in which case Congress has to pass a "continuing resolution" to extend existing funding levels.

Spending bills for 2018 weren't completed until this past March, at which point they were all stuck together into a $1.3 trillion "omnibus" that Trump signed reluctantly after briefly threatening to veto it. He said at the time he would never sign another such bill.

Taking him at his word, Republicans have been working hard to avoid a repeat of that scenario. GOP leaders have met privately with the president to ensure he is on board with their approach. They have urged the president repeatedly not to court a shutdown just ahead of the midterms.

But several Republicans acknowledged Wednesday that while they hope and expect there will be no shutdown, they can't be sure what Trump will do.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said Republicans were aiming to get as many bills passed as possible before the fiscal year ends.

"I hope that that's a strategy that he supports. I think it makes the most sense for us and avoids the spectacle of a huge shutdown fight 30 days before an election," Thune said. "But you know, the president does things his own way. We all recognize that, and we're just going to keep doing our work and keeping our head down."

Even so, it appears likely that some of the toughest issues will be delayed until after the election, including the Homeland Security spending bill that pays for the border wall. The Senate's Homeland bill allocates $1.6 billion for the wall, which was the original White House request; the House version of the bill has $5 billion for the wall and other border security, after Trump privately upped his request.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Wednesday that issue could be dealt with after the election.

"Shutting down the government is not in anybody's interest," Shelby said.

Privately, the White House has indicated that Trump will put off any shutdown until after the election, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions who demanded anonymity to speak freely. But the president has been known to change his mind, and it's not clear why waiting until after the election would increase Trump's leverage in getting Democrats to go along with $5 billion for the border wall and security.

"I've had a lot of good support within the Republican Party, and you saw the poll numbers in the Republican Party. They like me so I have to keep them a little bit happy," Trump told Limbaugh. "But whether it's before or after? But I actually think it's a great campaign issue. I think it would be great before. But I don't want to disappoint a lot of very good people that are working with me."

The Washington Post's Damian Paletta contributed to this report.

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