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Democrats threaten government shutdown over funding for Trump's border wall

Fence along the U.S./Mexico border in Santa Teresa, N.M. (Credit: KFOX14/CBS4)

Congress must pass a government spending bill by April 28 or face a government shutdown. A shutdown is exactly what Senate Democrats are threatening if Republicans and the Trump administration try to include new funding for a southern border wall in the must-pass bill.

In a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and head of the Appropriations Committee Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Democratic leaders made clear that any GOP attempts to include funds for Trump's border wall will have severe consequences.

In a letter circulated to media outlets, Democratic leaders said they are "concerned with reports that there may be an effort to include funding for a very expensive border wall" in the government spending bill.

Back in December, Republicans and Democrats narrowly agreed to a short-term funding bill that would carry over into April, allowing the new administration, to set budgeting priorities for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The Senate Democrats warned that if their Republican colleagues "insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy. ... We believe it would be inappropriate to insist on the inclusion of such funding in a must-pass appropriations bill that is needed for the Republican majority in control of the Congress to avert a government shutdown so early in President Trump’s Administration."

Building a physical barrier along the nearly 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border wall was one of Trump's most well-known campaign promises. During rallies, crowds of Trump supporters cheered the construction of the wall, which would be paid for by the Mexican government, according to then-candidate Trump.

Since the campaign, the issue of funding the wall construction has been up in the air. Numerous Mexican government officials have denounced the notion that their country would pay, and a proposed border border tax on goods crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. could violate American commitments to the World Trade Organization.

One of Trump's first executive orders after entering office, was focused on finding and using existing funds at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to begin construction of the wall. A report sent to congressional budget staff in March indicated that the administration was only able to find $20 million in existing funds to begin construction on the wall. The total cost of the wall, according to a leaked DHS estimate, could cost upwards of $21 billion.

If Republicans want to include wall funding in the April government spending bill, they will have to secure the support of 8 Democrats. If Democrats want to block funds for the wall and other Trump and GOP priorities in the budget, they have the numbers to filibuster the bill, but it is questionable whether they will risk a government shutdown to prove their point.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) was one of the Democratic leaders who signed on to the letter warning of a government shutdown. She was quick to clarify that the letter was not a matter of "threatening" the majority party, but highlighting the "bright lines" Democrats don't want to see crossed in the government spending bill.

"I don't want a government shutdown and nobody in our caucus does," she said, "but at the same time we have got to be willing to work together as we have before and to make sure that we don't have things that would be absolutely unacceptable in there."

Despite the popularity of the border wall among Trump's supporters, a recent Pew Poll found that only 35 percent of Americans support building the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Even fewer Americans, just 16 percent, believe the Mexican government will pay for it.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) doesn't understand why the administration and its Republican allies in Congress would be seeking American taxpayer funding for the wall.

"It was our understanding the Mexican government was going to pay pay for that," Peters noted. "In fact, I think Donald Trump was very clear. He said over and over and again that the Mexican government was going to pay for the wall, and now he's asking the American taxpayers to do it."

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) agreed, saying it would be a "huge" misstep for President Trump to try to push through border wall funding in a must-pass budget. "After having sold the public on this 'Mexico is going to pay for the wall,' to try to throw something in forcing the taxpayers to pay for it at the last minute would be a big mistake."

In a draft presidential budget that has been circulated among lawmakers, the Trump administration has proposed up to $9.1 billion in funding cuts to the U.S. Coast Guard, a critical force in preventing drugs and illegal migrants from entering the country. Instead, the draft budget "aggressively implements the president's commitment to construct a physical wall along the southern border," which in monetary terms means an estimated $2.9 billion would be made available to start construction.

Sen. Peters argued that shifting homeland security funds to pay for the border wall is simply not defensible. "The Coast Guard is a very important part of border security, and to cut them to pay for a wall simply is not common sense," he said.

Senate appropriators like John Boozman (R-Ark.) who chairs the subcommittee on homeland security, has no doubt that funding for the border wall will be included in the government spending bill.

"I have every reason to believe that there will be funding for the wall in there," he said. Asked about President Trump's promise to get Mexico to pay for it, Boozman deflected, saying, "I'm just talking about the situation we're in now in the sense of whether or not there will be funding ... So I think there will be funding in the bill."

He also brushed off Democrats' threats to shut down the government on the basis of funding the wall arguing that the president campaigned on the issue and the American people elected him. "They want the border secure. It's going to cost some money," he said.

It's almost impossible to find a lawmaker on Capitol Hill who will argue against stronger U.S. border security, but when it comes to agreement on building a wall or going with a different approach, even Republicans are wary of the president's plan.

Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) explained that his committee along with DHS will be looking at "different alternatives" to the wall in order to get the best outcome. "The first thing we have t do is undergo the study: What do we really need? What combination of technology? What combination of walls fencing, and where? It's all going to be studied," he said.

Some experts have suggested fencing is adequate along certain parts of the border, where other portions can best be monitored using drones and other technology. Still others question the wisdom of an expensive border wall when smugglers regularly use legal border checkpoints to traffic drugs into the U.S.

In March, DHS issued a report showing that the number of people trying to illegally cross the U.S. southern border dropped to a five-year low, with 40 percent fewer border apprehensions from January to February. DHS Secretary John Kelly credited Donald Trump and his January immigration executive order, which allowed DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to fully implement U.S. immigration law related to apprehensions, detentions, and swift removal of illegal immigrants from the country.

Those numbers, which Kelly called a "marked change in trends," also raise the question of whether building a wall is still necessary. The White House responded to that question last week, insisting, "It's of course still needed, and it’s a commitment that the President made, and I think one of the things that the American people, regardless of where they stand across the aisle, appreciate about this President is that he is a man that has kept his word."

Forcing President Trump into a position where he breaks his word and most memorable campaign pledge is without a doubt part of the Democrats' budget showdown strategy. So far, Democrats have been honing their narrative around Trump's broken campaign promises, from Medicaid cuts in the GOP health bill, to nominating the wealthiest cabinet in American history despite pledging to "drain the swamp."

Of course, when one party shuts down the government, no one wins. During the 2013 government shutdown led by Republicans, the majority of Americans blamed the party that staged the protest for the chaos that followed. With Democrats sitting as a minority in the Senate, the House, and across the nation in state legislatures, taking a wrecking ball to the budget process may not be the best bet.

There is still time for compromise, but not a lot as the deadline for a new government spending bill is just six weeks away on April 28. Asked whether the fight would reach the brink of actually forcing a government shutdown, Sen. Stabenow wouldn't discount the possibility.

"I hope not. I hope that people will want to work together," she said.

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