By John Wagner, Erica Werner and Josh Dawsey / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday threw cold water on the idea of immediately declaring a national emergency to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, reversing days of signals that he might soon declare the emergency amid a protracted standoff with Democrats over a partial shutdown of the federal government.
“What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” he said Friday afternoon, surrounded by law enforcement officials at a White House roundtable. “I’m not going to do it so fast.”
The president has defiantly said for days he might declare a national emergency to expedite construction of the wall — and his administration has asked agencies to begin preparations.
But he has gotten sharp pushback, even from Republicans, at the notion of declaring such an emergency. His lawyers have privately warned that he could be on shaky footing with such a move, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The House broke for the weekend Friday, all but ensuring that the partial government shutdown would become the longest in U.S. history.
The Democratic-led House held its final votes of the week Friday, including on a measure to ensure that federal workers who are furloughed receive back pay once the government reopens. The bill, which passed the Senate on Thursday, now goes to Trump for his signature.
The House also passed another bill that would reopen more shuttered government departments — but it was already declared dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate because of a veto threat from Trump.
About 800,000 workers missed a paycheck Friday as the impasse between Trump and Democrats stretched into its 21st day. Without a dramatic turn of events, the shutdown would become one for the record books at midnight.
As of early Friday afternoon, there were no signs of serious negotiations underway, and leaders of both chambers announced no plans to meet before Monday.
Meanwhile, speculation continued to swirl around whether Trump would declare a national emergency and direct the military to build the wall without congressional consent.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who talks frequently with Trump, said that he expected the president to take that step in a matter of “days, not weeks” but that it was unclear whether doing so would lead to a full reopening of government.
Trump took to Twitter to tout his high-profile trip to the border Thursday, writing, “I just got back and it is a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!”
“The Democrats, Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy don’t know how bad and dangerous it is for our ENTIRE COUNTRY,” Trump wrote, referencing Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Trump asserted that without a wall — or steel barrier — “our Country cannot be safe.”
Pelosi said Friday that Democrats have not felt any political pressure to give in to Trump’s wall demands.
“No, except to stay firm,” she said.
She dismissed Trump’s negotiating style as one destined to fail. “His version of a negotiation is, ‘Do everything I want,’ ” she said.
Other Democrats pushed back in television appearances and speeches on the floor.
“One person is responsible for shutting down government: Donald Trump,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told his colleagues. He argued that Democrats are open to tightening border security but are not going to “waste money” on what he characterized as an antiquated approach advocated by Trump.
Hoyer referred to comments last month by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in which he described Trump’s call for a border wall as a “metaphor.”
“If it is a metaphor for security, we’re in,” Hoyer said.
House Republicans accused Democrats of going through the motions Friday by passing the latest of four bills to reopen parts of the government unrelated to border security. The bill taken up Friday would reopen the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service and several other agencies.
The bill passed 240-179, with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in the chamber supporting it.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., called the exercise “a charade” because Senate leaders have already indicated they do not plan to vote on the bill and Trump has said he would not sign it.
“If anybody thinks this is accomplishing anything, it’s not,” Cole said.
“We’ve wasted the week because our friends can’t sit down and split the difference,” he added. “I don’t think anyone looks particularly good in this… This will end another sad week in this chamber.”
The bill to ensure workers receive back pay passed 411 to 7. All those who opposed it were Republicans.
As part of an effort to continue to build a public case for the wall, Vice President Mike Pence spoke Friday with Customs and Border Protection employees, assuring them, “We’re going to build that wall.”
“Let me assure you that in a challenging time … I’m here to say we are with you and we are going to continue to stand with you until you have the resources and reforms to do your jobs, Pence said.
The agency is among those with employees working without pay because of the shutdown.
Later Friday afternoon, Trump was scheduled to hold what was billed as a “roundtable discussion on border security” at the White House with state, local and community leaders.
Amid the stalemate, the White House has been laying the groundwork for a declaration of a national emergency to build Trump’s border wall.
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 allocated but not spent for civil works projects, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
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 looked at as a potential source for unspent funds, with billions more potentially available there.
The notion of declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress has divided Republicans, some of whom see it as an encroachment on congressional authority.
“I think the president should not do it,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Friday. “I think as a member of Congress I ought to be very selfish about the constitutional powers that we have to appropriate money. I think it might be a bad precedent.”
Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Democrats from Virginia, both objected to the use of military funding for the wall while speaking with reporters Friday after a meeting with furloughed workers.
Kaine, who sits on the Armed Services Committee and is the only senator with a child on active duty, said military construction dollars are used for things like removing lead from the water supply in troops’ housing and hardening overseas bases to better resist a terrorist attack.”
“There is a lot of emergency expenditures that are already in the queue,” he said. “I’d like the ability to compare, well what’s more of an emergency right now.”
Warner said the courts would have to decide if money could be spent on the wall after Congress appropriated it for other uses.
“Let’s face it,” Warner said. “This is an attempt to basically go around the law, to go around the rules. That’s why you even see pushback from some in his own party.”
On Friday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló also strongly objected to the idea of diverting money intended for hurricane mitigation.
“No wall should be funded by the pain and suffering of citizens of the United States who have suffered a tragedy and loss through a natural disaster,” he said in a statement.
While the emergency declaration has been floated as way to end the standoff between Trump and congressional Democrats, Meadows said such a move by Trump would not necessarily end the partial shutdown.
“They’re two separate things, and I can tell you that everybody who thinks the national emergency declaration would actually end the shutdown, those two don’t necessarily go hand in hand,” he said. “They probably would, but they don’t necessarily go hand in hand.”
Pelosi told reporters that she expects the government to reopen if Trump declares a national emergency.
“Well, I think that would be his purpose,” she said. “Well, I guess his purpose is to build a wall. But remember this about the wall: This isn’t a wall between Mexico and the United States.”
She said Trump is instead trying to distract from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and other challenges his administration is facing.
“This is a wall between his failures of his administration, problems that he might have with the Mueller [investigation], people leaving his Cabinet in dismay and disgrace,” Pelosi said. “That’s the wall he’s trying to build between public opinion and what is going on. And so this is his big diversion, and he’s a master of diversion.”
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.