WASHINGTON – The White House has begun laying the groundwork for a declaration of national emergency to build President Donald Trump's border wall, a move certain to set off a firestorm of opposition in Congress and the courts but one that could pave the way for an end to the three-week government shutdown.
The administration is eyeing unused money in the Army Corps of Engineers budget, specifically a disaster spending bill passed by Congress last year that includes $13.9 billion that has been allocated but not actually spent for civil works projects, two people with knowledge of the developments said Thursday.
Trump has urged the Army Corps to determine how fast contracts could be signed and whether construction could begin within 45 days, according to one of the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the preparations.
The list includes dozens of flood control projects in areas affected by recent natural disasters, including the Texas coastline inundated by Hurricane Harvey and parts of Puerto Rico battered by Hurricane Maria. The military construction budget is also being eyed as a potential source for unspent funds, with billions more potentially available there.
The preparations are taking place with talks at an impasse over Trump's demands for $5.7 billion to construct more than 200 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats are staunchly opposed, leading to a partial government shutdown that Saturday will become the longest in U.S. history.
Some 800,000 federal workers are about to miss their first paycheck since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
The Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday that would guarantee back pay to furloughed federal workers once the shutdown ends, although thousands of government contractors who have been furloughed may never recoup their losses.
Trump, who walked out of a White House negotiating session Wednesday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to agree to pay for his wall, reiterated Thursday that he may well declare a national emergency if Democrats don't give him what he wants.
“We can declare a national emergency. We shouldn't have to because this is common sense,” Trump told reporters as he visited the border in Texas, accompanied by the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers. Trump repeatedly has said Mexico would pay for the wall.
The president and the administration have been depicting a humanitarian and public safety crisis at the border, focusing on drugs flowing into the United States and violence by unauthorized immigrants. Asked about a timetable for a national emergency declaration, the president said he would see how it goes with Congress.
But on Capitol Hill there were no signs of progress, and instead lawmakers of both parties were bracing for Trump to declare a national emergency.
Democratic staffers from leadership offices and relevant committees met Thursday afternoon to discuss a potential response.
Pelosi declined to say how the House would respond to a national emergency declaration, when questioned at a news conference Thursday.
“If and when the president does that, you'll find out how we will react,” Pelosi said. “But I think the president will have problems on his own side of the aisle for exploiting the situation in a way that enhances his power.”
Indeed, a number of Republicans have expressed qualms or outright opposition about Trump declaring a national emergency, including members of the House Armed Services Committee who object to the prospect of the administration targeting funds within the Pentagon's military construction budget.
Others cautioned against the administration taking executive action on an issue that should be Congress's purview.
“It's not the way to do it. I can understand why they're looking at it,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. “I don't like the idea of pulling money out of defense and military construction and the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor often supportive of Trump, said, “Weaponizing a national emergency to achieve a policy objective is usually something that happens in banana republics, not George Washington's republic.”
But other Republicans were ready for Trump to take the step.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accused Pelosi of intransigence that's brought talks to an end, and said “it is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier. “
The House and Senate could move quickly to pass a bill to reopen the government, predicated on assurances from Trump that he would sign the legislation. But conservative Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who talks frequently with Trump, cautioned that declaration of a national emergency would not necessarily lead to reopening the government.