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 on Saturday will become the longest ever in U.S. history.
Some 800,000 federal workers are about to miss their first paycheck since the shutdown began Dec. 22, and problems plaguing shuttered national parks, food inspection processes and other federal services are multiplying.
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 on 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.
“Now if we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that,” Trump said to Fox News host Sean Hannity about an emergency declaration in an interview that aired Thursday night. “I would actually say I would. I can’t imagine any reason why not because I’m allowed to do it. The law is 100 percent on my side.”
The president and members of his 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. There was a significant uptick in border apprehensions in 2018, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, especially of immigrant families, but border apprehensions remain much lower than the high levels seen in the 1980s through the 2000s.
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. Democrats were exploring their options on how to respond.
Democratic staffers from leadership offices and relevant committees met Thursday afternoon to discuss a potential response. According to an attendee, the meeting focused on undercutting any case that the border situation constituted a national emergency under the legal definition, and highlighting projects that might be put at risk if Trump were to raid other accounts to fund the wall.
House Democratic leadership staff has explored the possibility of a lawsuit against the administration. But while no final determinations have been made, the current thinking is that Congress likely would not have standing to sue, according to a leadership aide.
State attorneys general or people directly affected by a border wall – such as landowners who own property along the U.S.-Mexico boundary – would likely have to file the lawsuit, and the House could file an amicus brief.
Pelosi declined to say how the House would respond to a national emergency declaration, when questioned at a news conference Thursday.
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