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Trump backs away from declaring emergency to get his wall

POLITICO logo POLITICO 6 days ago By Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Burgess Everett
Union workers demonstrate against the government shutdown on January 10, 2019, in Washington, DC. © NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images Union workers demonstrate against the government shutdown on January 10, 2019, in Washington, DC.

President Trump on Friday appeared to back off the dramatic step of declaring a national emergency to secure border wall money, indicating he wants Congress to continue negotiating to end the 21-day partial government shutdown.

Trump said he would refrain from taking unilateral action on border security — just one day after he said he would “probably” do so within days — amid mounting pushback from his own GOP allies on Capitol Hill.

"We want Congress to do its job," Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. "What we're not looking to do right now is national emergency."

The White House is rethinking its strategy just one day before the federal government will enter its longest-ever stretch without funding. The sense of urgency for a deal is mounting, as 800,000 federal workers missed their first paycheck on Friday.

Pressure was also coming from congressional Republicans, who are increasingly skeptical of Trump’s plans for an executive order. Many have balked at the strategy as potential overreach — not unlike the GOP’s rhetoric against former President Obama’s unilateral immigration moves. They have also objected to the funding strategy Trump would use to pay for the wall after declaring an emergency.

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Friday that he would oppose reusing disaster funds for the wall, referencing the Trump administration’s possible plan to use disaster relief money. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, also raised concerns about using such money.

By Friday afternoon, Trump said that he is "not going to do it so fast."

The White House’s pivot away from an emergency order muddies the path forward for reopening the government, with both Democrats and Trump unbending in their stance on the border wall.

Some lawmakers in both parties believed that Trump's legal move could be an escape hatch from the intractable funding fight, with Trump agreeing to reopen the government as he seeks money elsewhere.

Heading into the fourth weekend of a funding impasse, no bipartisan talks are scheduled, and Trump appears to have pulled himself out of negotiations that are poised to go nowhere without his direct participation.

“When the president acts, we will respond to whatever he does," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in response to Trump's comments Friday afternoon. "A new idea might be for Republicans to stand up to the president and say it’s wrong to shut down government," she added later when asked by a reporter if Democrats had any new ideas to end the weekslong stalemate.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have held a series of increasingly unproductive meetings with Trump so far this year, and no one else is talking to each other. The Senate and House won't return until Monday, essentially guaranteeing the shutdown will eclipse the previous longest funding lapse of 21 days. Monday will be the 24th day of a partial shutdown.

Though both Trump and congressional Democrats seem comfortable with their political position as the shutdown lingers, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Friday that "nobody is winning."

"I've got a lot of people that are saying, Lisa, you got to stand with the president, you got to be strong on this," she said. "Then I have an equal number that are saying, please, please, do something to help reopen this government."

But that's proved impossible. The usual players in bipartisan talks, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are sidelined. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is deferring to Schumer. There's no bipartisan gang coming to save the shuttered federal departments.

“What good is it if the president isn’t on board? And we've learned in the past that’s an iffy proposition," said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), whose own immigration compromise was killed by Trump last year. “If it persists, I think they’re going to have to consider [a veto override] more and more. It’s ridiculous."

But GOP senators and aides say a veto override isn't realistic either. And many had been pinning their hopes that Trump would act unilaterally to at least get things moving again.

Trump’s executive action would have set off a scramble of legal action by House Democrats. Republicans are divided over whether to restrain the president: Some believe it would claw away power from Congress, but others think it will be an elegant way out of the shutdown.

"Mr. President, declare a national emergency now. Build a wall now," Graham said after meeting with Trump Friday.

But other Republicans cautioned the president against taking such a drastic move, and the divisions among his allies could be hamstringing his decision to move quickly.

"Even if the president's got authority to do it, I'd advise against it. And I would think that each side ought to be laying something on the table and negotiating," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the most senior GOP senator.

He declined to say if he would vote to block the president from doing so and said it's likely a negotiating tactic: "The president sees it more as a lever to get things on the table and get negotiations going."

People in both parties had seemed hopeful that the emergency declaration would at least restart the government, even if it's legally dubious.

“Declaring it an emergency, I suppose, serves a political function for him but then it relocates the whole controversy into the courts,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “If that’s what it takes to reopen the government, most of us will probably stomach our misgivings about it and hope that the rule of law will prevail.”

Some GOP lawmakers openly worry about potential accusations of hypocrisy after Republicans denounced Obama’s previous use of executive actions. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said he'd "be going nuts" if President Obama had discussed the tactic.

If Trump declares a national emergency, some House conservatives are warning that it doesn't guarantee that the president will sign legislation to reopen the government.

Two leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), both signaled Friday that they wouldn't vote to reopen the government unless Congress can secure its own wall funding money.

"We need to focus on a legislative appropriation for the border security wall, just like we said. That’s the best approach," Jordan said.

The stakes for the shutdown are ratcheting up, as roughly one-quarter of the federal government inches closer to complete shutdown mode. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was one of the few senators in town on Friday, and he spent the morning telling stories about affected constituents.

He called on the government to reopen and then "engage with the president in a meaningful, short-term, prompt dialogue about border security and immigration reform."

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who sits on the House spending panel, said he is so frustrated that he's begun talking with House Democratic leaders about other ways out of the shutdown. One of his ideas is to bring up a slate of pre-negotiated funding bills that could reopen pieces of the government, even without a broad immigration deal.

McConnell has said those bills won't go anywhere unless the president endorses them. And Trump killed his party's own attempt to reopen the government and then kickstart negotiations on the wall and immigration reform. GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced a bill that has $25 billion in border security in exchange for temporary protections for Dreamers on Friday, which they hoped could help restart talks but is miles away from anything Democrats would support.

The House voted Friday on its fourth piecemeal funding bill of the week to reopen slices of the federal government, which have all gradually picked off more GOP defections. Ten Republicans voted with Democrats. The Senate held no votes Friday, and there was no sign of any of the top leaders in their Capitol suites.

Melanie Zanona contributed reporting to this story.

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