US Congress to vote on border funds deal without Trump's wall

With federal employees still reeling from last shutdown, Congress set to vote on Thursday for funding deal.

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speak to the news media as they depart the West Wing after meeting with Trump [Carlos Barria/Reuters]
    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speak to the news media as they depart the West Wing after meeting with Trump [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

    The US Congress on Thursday is seeking to end a dispute over border security with bipartisan legislation that would avert another partial government shutdown but does not give President Donald Trump the money he sought for a wall on the US-Mexico border.

    The measure faces votes in the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-controlled House of Representatives before going to the Republican president, who has not yet announced whether he would sign it.

    Trump triggered a 35-day-long shutdown of about a quarter of the federal government with his December demand for $5.7bn to help build a wall but did not get the money in a deal that ended that shutdown and does not get it in the legislation now before Congress.

    Late on Wednesday, negotiators put the finishing touches on legislation that would provide more than $300bn to fund the Department of Homeland Security and a range of other federal agencies through to September 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Funding is due to expire for those agencies on Friday.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on the Senate floor, described the legislation as "a compromise that no side will view as a perfect deal", but labelled it "a success for our bipartisan process" and reiterated his call for Trump to sign it.

    Trump was due to be briefed on the package on Thursday, a White House official said.

    The legislation would provide $1.37bn in new money to help build 55 miles (88.5 km) of new physical barriers on the border. It is the same level of funding Congress appropriated for border-security measures last year, including barriers but not concrete walls.

    "When the Senate votes on the agreement, we'll be voting to avoid a second partial shutdown and provide the certainty of a fully functioning federal government," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "Later today, I hope each of my colleagues will join me in moving forward with the agreement produced by this hard work, and the president will sign it into law."

    Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer called the agreement a "reasonable compromise". 

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    "It does not fund the president's wall, but it does support smart border security initiatives that both parties have always supported, including increased security at our ports of entry and humanitarian assistance at the border. Most importantly, it will keep our government open," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

    The legislation would also fund the Justice Department, Commerce Department, State Department, Department of Agriculture, Internal Revenue Service and others, covering roughly 800,000 federal workers.

    Failure to enact it would shutter many government programmes, from national parks maintenance and air traffic-controller training programmes to the collection and publication of important data for financial markets, for the second time this year.

    'Let's all pray' 

    Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who was presiding over the opening of the Senate, added his own prayer at the end of a prayer by the guest chaplain. "Let's all pray that the president will have the wisdom to sign the bill so the government doesn't shut down," Grassley said.

    Trump was widely blamed for the previous shutdown.

    A border wall was a central 2016 campaign promise by Trump. As president, he has called the border a national security crisis that required a wall to curb undocumented immigration and drug trafficking.

    He originally said Mexico would pay for the wall along the 2,000-mile (3,200km) border, an idea Mexico dismissed.

    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is in regular contact with the White House, said Trump was "inclined to take the deal and move on".

    Graham also told reporters Trump would then look elsewhere to find more money to build the wall and was "very inclined" to declare a national emergency to secure the funds.

    Such a move, bypassing Congress and redirecting funds previously approved by politicians for other purposes in order to construct the wall, likely would lead to a court battle, as it is Congress and not the president that mainly decides how federal funds get spent under the US Constitution.

    Several Republicans have cautioned Trump against taking the unilateral action, but Trump has claimed that declaring national emergencies is "not unique". 

    However, an Associated Press news agency fact-check found that the emergency action Trump has been contemplating would be rare.

    The presidents he cites - Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton - did not use emergency powers to pay for projects that Congress wouldn't support.

    The House Appropriations Committee said the bill would set a path for reducing capacity at detention facilities for immigrants before possible deportation.

    The panel said it would reduce the number of beds at the detention facilities to about 40,520 by the end of the fiscal year, down from a current count of approximately 49,060.

    Democrats sought reductions, arguing that would force federal agents to focus on apprehending violent criminals and repeat offenders and discourage arrests of undocumented immigrants for minor traffic violations, for example.

    The Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee said, however, there were provisions in the bill that could result in an increase in detention beds from last year.

    SOURCE: News agencies