President Trump said Tuesday he would be “proud” to shut the government down unless he gets a massive infusion of cash to build his border wall, and suggested if Congress doesn’t concede, he would use the military to erect more fencing anyway.
Democrats on Capitol Hill said the president would be creating a constitutional crisis if he tries to rope the Pentagon into his wall plans over the objection of Congress — and countered with red lines of their own, saying they won’t pony up a single new dollar for Trump-style border security.
The impasse, and a host of other business that’s piled up in recent days, now threaten Congress’s final vacation of the year, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’s prepared to keep his troops in town between Christmas and New Year’s if they can’t get their work done before then.
That threat will grow more real each day the two sides are unable to find a compromise on the wall and come closer to a Christmas-time government shutdown.
“It is not an easy situation,” Mr. Trump said during a White House summit with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the Democrats’ floor leaders in the House and Senate. “We are on very opposite sides. I would not like to see a government closing, a shutdown.”
Moments later, though, he said he would embrace a shutdown if it comes to that.
“Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other,” he said, telling Mr. Schumer he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi were stunned, saying they’d never before heard of a president cheerleading for a government blowup.
“If President Trump wants to throw a temper tantrum ahead of the holidays and cause a Trump shutdown, it’ll be solely on his back,” Mr. Schumer told reporters afterward.
Yet he’s also moved the goalposts on Mr. Trump.
Last week he’d said Congress should approve a Senate-written homeland security bill that included $1.6 billion for border wall money. But he said Tuesday he no longer thinks Democrats would support that in the House.
Indeed, Hispanic Democrats and immigrant-rights activists at the heart of the party’s base have said they don’t want to see any money going to border fencing at all. Faced with their own pressures, Democratic leaders seemed relieved that Mr. Trump is willing to accept blame for a shutdown.
Both sides say they agree on the need for stronger border security, and that includes some sort of barriers. Indeed, much of the gap between Mr. Trump and the Democratic leaders appears to be semantics over whether those barriers would be called a fence or a wall. The former is acceptable to Democrats, but Mr. Trump insists on calling fencing a “wall.”
Mr. Trump threw a wrinkle into the mix when he said Tuesday on Twitter that he may have the Defense Department build the fence, using its own money.
A Pentagon spokesman said they have no plans to do that as of yet, but said they believe they would have authority under existing law to build barriers if it were deemed part of counter-drug operations or part of a national emergency.
Mr. Trump says the country is facing just such an emergency.
Democrats, though, said if Mr. Trump tries to build a wall that Congress hasn’t authorized, it would create a constitutional clash. A group of high-ranking Democratic senators sent a letter Monday complaining that the Pentagon was already drawing up plans to erect 31 miles of fencing in western Arizona, along the Barry M. Goldwater Range.
The government’s top border official told Congress on Tuesday that his officers and agents snared more than 3,000 illegal immigrants who attempted to enter the country on Dec. 3 — a number he said hasn’t been seen in years.
Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said walls work to help control illegal immigration, and he insisted the government is spending the money Congress already approved. He said of the money allocated for 40 miles of wall in the 2017 spending bill, 33 miles has been obligated.
“It’s worked everywhere we’ve put barrier in,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He said they have future plans for 33 priority segments, spanning 1,100 miles of new and replacement fencing.
But even many Republicans say they’ve been shocked at the price tag, which reaches as high as $25 million per mile. During the last round of fence-building before Mr. Trump, each mile of fencing cost between $4 million and $6 million, depending on the location.
During Tuesday’s White House meeting, Mr. Trump pointed back to some of those past wall-building projects, saying they were proof that it helps reduce illegal immigration. Fencing built in Yuma, Arizona, a decade ago helped cut the flow of people nabbed at the border by as much as 96 percent. In San Diego, fencing built in the 1990s cut the flow by 92 percent.
Mrs. Pelosi challenged the president, saying he had pushed the wall conversation “to a place that is devoid, frankly, of fact.”
“We need border security, and I think we all agree that we need border security,” Mr. Trump countered.
“Yes we do,” Mr. Schumer responded.
“See? We get along,” the president quipped.
For their part Republicans on Capitol Hill were acting like bystanders, content to let the president and the Democratic leaders battle it out publicly. Still, they didn’t appear eager to follow Mr. Trump into a shutdown.
“No matter who precipitates the government shutdown, the American people don’t like it,” Mr. McConnell said.
The Kentucky Republican said funding the government is the biggest priority among a long list of tasks Congress must complete before the end of the year, and he warned colleagues they should be prepared to stay through Christmas and right up to New Year’s Day to finish their work.
Mr. McConnell also called the prospect of a shutdown a disappointing way for Mr. Trump and Republicans to cap off their two years of control of all the political branches of government.
“I’d still like to see a smooth ending here, and I haven’t given up hope that’s what we’ll have,” he said.