President Donald Trump will sign Congress’ border security compromise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday.
The announcement removed the last ounce of suspense over the fate of a bill that would provide just a sliver of the money Mr Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico but also would avoid a new government shutdown.
But Mr McConnell also said Mr Trump would quickly declare a national emergency. The president has said that move would give him power to divert money from other budget projects into wall building.
Mr McConnell also said he would support Mr Trump’s emergency declaration. That was a turnabout for the Kentucky Republican, who like Democrats and many Republicans has until now opposed such a declaration.
The emergency declaration will inject the likelihood of fresh conflict between Congress and Mr Trump over his efforts to build barriers along the boundary with Mexico. Opponents have said there is no crisis at the border and Mr Trump is merely sidestepping Congress.
The Republican-controlled Senate began voting on the agreement Wednesday, and passage by that chamber and the Democratic-led controlled seemed certain.
Pelosi responds to Trump decision to declare national emergency: “It’s not an emergency what’s happening at the border. It’s a humanitarian challenge
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) February 14, 2019
Mr Trump had signalled he would sign the bill but it was unclear until Mr McConnell’s announcement if he would do so, prompting some lawmakers to voice concern.
“Let’s all pray that the president will have wisdom to sign the bill so the government doesn’t shut down,” said Senator Charles Grassley chiming in after a guest chaplain opened Thursday’s session.
Mr Trump’s assent would end a raucous legislative saga that commenced before Christmas and was ending, almost fittingly, on Valentine’s Day.
The low point was the historically long 35-day partial federal shutdown, which Mr Trump sparked and was in full force when Democrats took control of the House, compelling him to share power for the first time.
Mr Trump yielded on the shutdown January 25 after public opinion turned against him and congressional Republicans. He’d won not a nickel of the $A8 billion ($US5.7 billion) he’d demanded for his wall but had caused missed paychecks for legions of federal workers and contractors and lost government services for countless others. It was a political fiasco for Mr Trump and an early triumph for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The fight left both parties dead set against another shutdown. That sentiment weakened Mr Trump’s hand and fuelled the bipartisan deal, a pact that contrasts with the parties’ still-raging differences over health care, taxes and investigations of the president.
The product of nearly three weeks of talks, the agreement provides almost $A2 billion for new barriers along the boundary. That’s less than the $2.2 billion for border security in a bipartisan Senate bill that Mr Trump spurned months ago, and enough for building just 88km of barricades, not the 320km-plus he’d sought.
Notably, the word “wall” — which fuelled many a chant at Mr Trump campaign events and then his rallies as president — does not appear once in the 1768 pages of legislation and explanatory materials. “Barriers” and “fencing” are the nouns of choice.
The compromise would also squeeze funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in an attempt to pressure the agency to gradually detain fewer immigrants. To the dismay of Democrats, it would still leave an agency many of them consider abusive holding thousands more immigrants than it did last year.
The measure contains money for improved surveillance equipment, more customs agents and humanitarian aid for detained immigrants. The overall bill also provides $A464 billion to finance dozens of federal programs for the rest of the year, one-fourth of federal agency budgets.
Mr Trump has talked for weeks about augmenting the agreement by taking executive action to divert money from other programs for wall construction, without congressional sign-off. He might declare a national emergency, which has drawn opposition from both parties, or invoke other authorities to tap funds targeted for military construction, disaster relief and counterdrug efforts. Those moves could prompt congressional resistance or lawsuits, but would help assuage supporters dismayed that the president is yielding.
Republican Mark Meadows, who leads the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, told reporters “it would be political suicide” if Mr Trump signs the agreement and did nothing else to find added money.
The measure was expected to be carried by pragmatists from both parties. Many of Congress’ most liberal members were expected to oppose it, unwilling to yield an inch to Mr Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, while staunch conservatives preferred a bill that would go further.
“I made a promise to my community that I wouldn’t fund ICE,” said Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman who’s become a face of her party’s left wing and a leading proponent of eliminating the agency. Though Mr Trump lost the highest-profile issue at stake, he all but declared victory on Wednesday.
At the White House, he contended that a wall “is being built as we speak.” Work on a small stretch of barriers is due to start this month in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley under legislation Congress approved last year.
Swallowing the deal would mark a major concession by Mr Trump, who has spent months calling the situation at the southern border a national security crisis. In private conversations, Mr Trump has called the congressional bargainers poor negotiators, said a person familiar with the conversations who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly.
Mr Trump has repeatedly vowed Mexico would pay for the wall, a suggestion that country has spurned. His descriptions of the wall’s size have fluctuated, at times saying it would cover 1000 of the 2000-mile boundary. Previous administrations constructed more than 1000km f barriers.
Facing opposition from Mr Trump, Democrats lost their bid to include language giving federal contractors back pay for wages lost during the last shutdown. Government workers have been paid for time they were furloughed or worked without paychecks.
Also omitted was an extension of the Violence Against Women Act. Democrats say this will give them a chance later this year to add protections for transgender people to that law.
HOW COMMON ARE NATIONAL EMERGENCIES?
Mr Trump would be taking an extraordinary step by declaring a national emergency to steer money to his promised border wall.
He has previously tried to make it sound quite ordinary.
“You know, we already have national emergencies out there. You know, President Obama, President Clinton, President Bush — they’ve declared many national — this is not unique. They’ve declared many national emergencies. Many, many,” he said on Tuesday.
But the emergency action Mr Trump has been contemplating would be rare.
The presidents he cites did not use emergency powers to pay for projects that Congress wouldn’t support.
Emergency declarations by Mr Obama, Mr Bush and Mr Clinton were overwhelmingly for the purpose of addressing crises that emerged abroad.
Many blocked foreign interests or terrorist-linked entities from access to funds.
Some prohibited certain imports from or investments to countries associated with human rights abuses.
“It’s extremely rare for a president to declare a national emergency in a bid to fund domestic construction projects, particularly one that Congress has explicitly refused to fund,” said Andrew Boyle, an attorney in the national security program at the Brennan Centre for Justice. “The ones that former presidents declared are of a different sort.”
With Congress unwilling to give Mr Trump anything close to the $5.7 billion he wants to build a portion of the border wall, the White House has made clear that he would seek money from other sources, whether with an emergency declaration or by other means.
Altogether, Mr Clinton declared 17 national emergencies, Mr Bush, 13, and Mr Obama, 12, according to a list compiled by the Brennan Centre.
The Brennan Centre has tracked 58 emergency declarations back to 1978, of which 31 remain in effect.
Mr Obama’s emergency declarations were aimed at blocking property of “certain persons” involved in crises abroad — Ukraine, Burundi, Venezuela, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, among other countries.
He also used the declarations to punish the Russian government and transnational organisations.
His only declaration not centred on foreign interests came in 2009, when he declared a national emergency to deal with the H1N1 flu pandemic. Mr Bush and Mr Clinton were similarly focused on foreign crises in their declarations.
Mr Clinton used one to prohibit transactions with the Taliban in 1999; Bush issued several in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.