White House Considers Using Storm Aid Funds as a Way to Pay for the Border Wall
McALLEN, Tex. — President Trump traveled to the border on Thursday to warn of crime and chaos on the frontier, as White House officials considered diverting emergency aid from storm- and fire-ravaged Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and California to build a border barrier under an emergency declaration.
In a sign of growing unease about the partial government shutdown, some Senate Republicans came off the sidelines to hash out a deal that would reopen the government as Congress worked toward a broader agreement tying wall funds to protection for some undocumented immigrants and other migrants.
But before those negotiations could gain momentum, they collapsed; Vice President Mike Pence and other members of Mr. Trump’s team let it be known privately that the president would not back such a deal.
“It kind of fell apart,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said, wearing a dejected expression. “I have never been more depressed about moving forward than I am right now. I just don’t see a pathway.”
In a brief statement not long after, Mr. Graham declared, “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier.” He added, “I hope it works.”
The administration appeared to be looking into just that: using extraordinary emergency powers to get around Congress in funding the wall. The White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to examine emergency supplemental funds allocated last year after devastating hurricanes and wildfires that could instead be used to pay for the wall, according to congressional and Defense Department officials with knowledge of the matter, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the possibility.
As the shutdown neared Day 21, Mr. Trump, flanked by Border Patrol officers and a cache of drugs, cash and weapons seized by authorities, used a visit to a border facility in McAllen to blame the protracted shutdown affecting large sections of the federal government on Democrats, charging that their opposition to a wall was allowing for brutal crime and violence.
“You’ll have crime in Iowa, you’ll have crime in New Hampshire, you’ll have crime in New York” without a wall, he warned.
“If we had a barrier of any kind, whether it’s steel or concrete,” Mr. Trump said of tragic stories involving violence and human trafficking, “they wouldn’t even bother trying. We could stop that cold.”
In a bewildering set of statements that underscored the freewheeling, often contradictory nature of his attempts to force Democrats to capitulate, Mr. Trump renewed his threat to declare a national emergency and build his wall without congressional approval, but then suggested a short time later that he was open to a broader immigration deal that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants.
“We can declare a national emergency,” Mr. Trump said. “We shouldn’t have to.”
Later, standing just above the Rio Grande with military vehicles and border agents as his backdrop, he said he would consider a compromise that would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, often known as Dreamers, to maintain legal status they lost when he ended the Obama-era program that protected them.
“I would like to do a much broader form of immigration,” Mr. Trump said. “We could help the Dreamers.”
Only hours earlier, Mr. Pence had rejected such a deal as part of the current negotiations, saying the president wanted to wait until the Supreme Court ruled this spring on whether an Obama-era program protecting young immigrants brought illegally as children was constitutional. But the White House only hardened its position. “No wall, no deal,” Vice President Mike Pence declared in a briefing with reporters on Capitol Hill. “We’re going to keep standing strong, keep standing firm.”
On Friday, the shutdown will tie the longest in the nation’s history, and Republicans and Democrats have struggled to find a way forward without knowing precisely what Mr. Trump would accept.
Mr. Pence faulted the Democrats, declaring it time for them to begin negotiating, but he essentially blocked potential offramps for the impasse. He made it clear that Mr. Trump would not drop his insistence on funding for a wall on the southwestern border, which Democrats have branded a nonstarter.
And he indicated that the president was disinclined to accept the idea behind a bipartisan plan that had been under discussion in the Senate — similar to a measure that Republicans and Democrats supported last year, but that the White House rejected — that would trade wall funding for legal status for undocumented immigrants facing the threat of deportation, including the Dreamers and people who previously held Temporary Protected Status.
Privately, he informed Mr. Graham’s group that the president would not support the developing proposal, which would have reopened the government for three weeks while Republicans and Democrats worked to hash out a broader legislative deal on the wall and temporary grants of legal status for the two groups.
“We’re kind of stuck,” Mr. Graham conceded.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi also showed no signs of budging, urging the Republican-controlled Senate to take up a measure the House passed on Wednesday to reopen part of the government. The House passed two more measures on Thursday, this time funding the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
A dozen Republicans crossed party lines to support one of the measures, slightly more than previous votes, but no indication that the patience of Mr. Trump’s own party was wearing thin.
“We say to them: ‘Take yes for an answer. This is what you had proposed,’” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference. “Why are you rejecting it at the expense of the health, safety and well-being of the American people? Do you take an oath to the American people, or to Donald Trump?”
The showdown has forced 800,000 federal workers to go without pay and placed federal benefits for millions more in jeopardy, with the fallout being felt across the country in ways large and small. Without debate on Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to ensure that workers who go without salaries receive back pay when the government reopens. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said Mr. Trump had assured him he would sign the bill.
The partial shutdown will almost certainly become the longest in American history on Saturday, eclipsing a 21-day lapse that began in December 1995. Mr. Trump tweeted that he would skip a planned trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, slated to begin Jan. 22, because of the impasse.
At the same time, the only glimmer of a bipartisan compromise being discussed in the Capitol appeared to die before it got beyond what Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, called “a skeleton.” A flurry of negotiations that began late Wednesday among Republicans, including several facing competitive re-election contests in 2020, crumbled amid White House opposition.
The idea had been to craft legislation that would pair wall funding with protections for those who benefited from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program created by President Barack Obama that allowed some Dreamers to apply for work permits and deportation reprieves. Mr. Trump rescinded the program in 2017, drawing a legal challenge currently before the Supreme Court.
Senators were also discussing including legal status for immigrants who had been living legally in the United States under grants of Temporary Protected Status before Mr. Trump revoked them.
But Mr. Trump’s aides were concerned that the deal, which envisioned reopening the government immediately and then going through an unpredictable legislative process in congressional committees and on the Senate floor, would not ultimately yield what the president was insisting upon, according to one of the people briefed on the talks. Mr. Pence later told reporters Mr. Trump did not want to move on DACA until after it had been struck down by the Supreme Court, an outcome he said the White House expected.
“We feel confident that the Supreme Court will find DACA to have been unconstitutional, and at that time, he believes that there will be an opportunity for us to not only address the issue affecting the Dreamers, but also a broader range of immigration issues,” he said.
Earlier Ms. Pelosi had sidestepped a question about whether she would support a deal to reopen the government that included DACA, saying, “We haven’t had that discussion.”
“What we’re talking about now is just the president’s insistence on a wall,” she said. “We need to have comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats and Republicans know that.”
Republican senators who had called for reopening the government while the debate over border security continues said they were disappointed.
“It’s very difficult when we’re dealing with people who do not want to budge at all with their positions, and that’s the president and Speaker Pelosi,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine. “They’re each very dug in on their position, and that’s made this very difficult to resolve.”
The implosion of the deal left lawmakers bracing for Mr. Trump to declare a national emergency. The administration was exploring whether it would be possible under such authority for Mr. Trump to divert disaster funds provided in the wake of deadly storms away from recovery and rebuilding and toward his border wall. Senior Democrats were exploring both legislative and legal options to challenge the move.
The president is allowed to divert unspent money from projects under a national emergency. But a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe confidential discussions, questioned the legality of using Army Corps funding, saying it would be subject to restrictions under the Stafford Act, which governs disaster relief. The official said the process was as much a political exercise intended to threaten projects Democrats valued as a pragmatic one.
“That would be a travesty,” Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview.
“It’s all speculative at this point,” he said, alluding wryly to Mr. Trump’s penchant for abrupt announcements at all hours of the day and night. “Until we get a tweet at 2:30 tomorrow morning, we won’t know.”