As negotiations over a border security hit a snag, the White House on Sunday would not rule out another federal government shutdown even as it signaled a willingness to obtain funding for President Trump's proposed wall by other means.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in appearances on NBC's "Meet the Press" and "Fox News Sunday," said "you absolutely cannot" eliminate the possibility of another shutdown on Friday if a deal is not reached over the wall. The White House had asked for $5.7 billion, a figure rejected by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and the mood among bargainers has soured, according to people familiar with the negotiations not authorized to speak publicly about private talks.
"You cannot take a shutdown off the table, and you cannot take $5.7 off the table," Mulvaney told NBC, "but if you end up someplace in the middle, yeah, then what you probably see is the president say, 'Yeah, OK, and I'll go find the money someplace else.'"
A congressional deal seemed to stall even after Mulvaney convened a bipartisan group of lawmakers at Camp David on Friday. While the two sides seemed close to clinching a deal late last week, significant gaps remained and momentum appears to have slowed.
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The White House and many Republicans want to push the amount that would be spent for building physical barriers to $2 billion or higher. Democrats have said they will keep that figure below $2 billion, with some saying they support perhaps half that. In addition, Democrats are pushing to reduce the number of apprehended migrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency. Republicans are resisting.
"I think talks are stalled right now," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Sunday on Fox. "I'm not confident we're going to get there."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who appeared on the same program, agreed that "We are not to the point where we can announce a deal."
But Mulvaney did signal that the White House would prefer not to have a repeat of the last shutdown, which stretched more than a month, left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced a postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Trump's poll numbers tumbling.
As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days without getting money for the wall.
"The president is going to build the wall. That's our attitude at this point," Mulvaney told Fox. "We'll take as much money as you can give us, and we'll go find the money somewhere else, legally, and build that wall on the southern border, with or without Congress."
The president's supporters have suggested there are executive powers that Trump could use to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though it was unclear if they would face challenges in Congress or the courts. One provision of the law lets the Defense Department provide support for counterdrug activities.
But declaring a national emergency remained an option, Mulvaney said, even though many in the administration have cooled on the prospect. A number of powerful Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have also warned against the move, believing it usurps power from Congress and could set a precedent for a future Democratic president to declare an emergency for a liberal political cause.
"This is not the case of what the president not getting what he wants, so he goes off and declares a national emergency and gets the money he wants," said Mulvaney, who defended Trump's right to do so. "Face it, the president doesn't really want to do it. He would prefer legislation, because it's the right way to go."
As most budget disputes go, differences over hundreds of millions of dollars are usually imperceptible and easily solved. But this battle more than most is driven by political symbolism — whether Trump will be able to claim he delivered on his long-running pledge to "build the wall" or newly empowered congressional Democrats' ability to thwart him.
Predictably, each side blamed the other for the stall in negotiations.
"We were, you know, progressing well," Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." ''I thought we were tracking pretty good over the last week. And it just seems over the last 24 hours or so the goalposts have been moving from the Democrats."
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., countered by telling the same show, "the numbers are all over the place."
"I think the big problem here is this has become pretty much an ego negotiation," Yarmuth added. "And this really isn't over substance."
In a battle that's also largely over semantics, Democrats have said they won't pay for a "wall." But they are open to financing other types of barriers, such as vertical steel slats called bollards, barriers atop levies and vehicle barriers.