White House Digs In on Wall Demand, Aims for ‘Painless’ Shutdown

The Capitol as seen on the first morning of a partial government shutdown. The Capitol as seen on the first morning of a partial government shutdown. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

The White House on Saturday afternoon showed no signs of budging from its demands for $5 billion in funding for President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

On a call with reporters, a senior administration official described the president’s position that the funding was an “expectation,” and suggested the amount was non-negotiable.

“It’s a negotiation that continues based on the reality that we are articulating an expectation,” the official said. “We think that what the Democrats have put forward is something that is unacceptable.”

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Since midnight Saturday morning, nine departments and many federal agencies have shuttered, after Congress failed to pass a bill funding them until Feb. 8. Trump had initially signaled to Senate Republicans that he would sign a “clean” two-month continuing resolution, but he reversed course reportedly after he was excoriated by conservative pundits on radio and television. Democrats have insisted on only $1.3 billion for general border security, of which none can go toward wall construction.

Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer Saturday afternoon, but an agreement was not expected to be reached imminently. The Senate is in recess until Thursday.

As the parties remain divided over Homeland Security funding, the White House said it hopes to make the partial government shutdown as “painless” as possible.

“There are a lot of numbers out there [regarding employee furloughs] but we expect them to change,” a senior administration official said. “The numbers are based on agencies’ lapse plans, but it’s fluid. We’re helping agencies assess and make sure which activities are exempt or not exempt. We want to make this as painless as possible consistent with the law, not as painful as possible, unlike past administrations.”

Among services that will continue either as excepted activities or using carry-over funds—at least for now—are the Agriculture Department’s food safety activities, the Farm Service Agency, the Women, Infant and Children assistance program and preparation for the 2020 Census. Additionally, the State Department’s passport offices will remain open, as that is a fee-funded program.

Asked about whether the administration plans to move forward with a plan to freeze federal employee pay next year, or whether a 1.9 percent raise as approved by the Senate is a part of negotiations, the White House official said the question was outside the scope of their intent for the call. The White House must issue an order before the end of the year finalizing federal workers’ compensation for 2019.

“The president in his budget had a pay freeze, and this negotiation has been about the last remaining issues with regard to the border security,” the official said. “I’m not going to speak to all of the items remaining in the appropriations bill.”

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