House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Thursday that there'll be no "wall money" in any compromise border security deal as she and President Donald Trump signaled that congressional negotiators may never satisfy his demands in a new government spending bill.
Trump, who in recent weeks has expressed indifference to whether the term "wall" or something else is used, clung with renewed tenacity to the word that became his campaign mantra, declaring, "A wall is a wall." Yet in a series of tweets and statements, he issued conflicting messages about what he'd need to declare victory and suggested that merely repairing existing structures along the boundary could be a major component of a triumph.
Amid signs that Trump's leverage in Congress is atrophying, he seemed to aim one tweet at his conservative followers. He wrote that Democrats "are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL. I've got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don't expect much help!"
Pelosi, D-Calif., left the door open for an accord that could finance some barriers, citing what she said was already existing "Normandy fencing" that blocks vehicles.
"If the president wants to call that a wall, he can call that a wall," she told reporters. She added, "Is there a place for enhanced fencing? Normandy fencing would work."
Yet Pelosi's other remark — "There's not going to be any wall money in the legislation" — underscored the linguistic battle underway. It also showed that Democrats see no reason to let Trump claim a win in a cause that stirs his hard-right voters and enrages liberals.
Trump's political muscle weakened following Democrats' capture of House control in the November election. It waned further after his surrender last week in ending a record 35-day partial government shutdown without getting a penny of the $5.7 billion he'd demanded to start building the wall.
In another sign of his flagging hold over lawmakers, the GOP-controlled Senate backed legislation on a 68-23 vote Thursday that opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
When Trump folded on the shutdown, he agreed to reopen government until Feb. 15, giving lawmakers more time to craft a bipartisan border security compromise.
If there's no deal by then, Trump has threatened to revive the shutdown or declare a national emergency, which he claims would let him shift billions from unrelated military construction projects to erecting his wall. He criticized Democrats' negotiating stance so far, telling reporters in the Oval Office that Pelosi is "just playing games" and saying GOP bargainers are "wasting their time."
In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday night, Trump said he has "set the stage" to take action on his own.
"I'll continue to build the wall, and we'll get the wall finished," he added. "Now whether or not I declare a national emergency — that you'll see."
Democrats remain united against those tactics. Republican opposition seems nearly as strong, and GOP leaders are becoming increasingly assertive about publicly telegraphing those feelings to Trump.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters that "there are a lot of us that are trying to dissuade" Trump from declaring a national emergency should border security talks deadlock. Cornyn, a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he has "absolute confidence" that such a declaration would be challenged in court, tying up the money, and said Congress might even vote to defy him.
"The president needs to know that before he heads down that path," Cornyn said.
No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota told reporters that "a lot of folks are uncomfortable" with an emergency declaration. He stopped short of ruling out a challenge by the Senate, calling the question "hypothetical."
Earlier this week, McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of shutdowns, called the move "government dysfunction which should be embarrassing to everyone on a bipartisan basis."
Lawmakers caution that if Trump declares an emergency, future Democratic presidents might do the same for issues they favor that Congress derails. Some are reluctant to cede Congress' constitutional power to control spending to any president, and many say there is no real border emergency.
Democrats offered further details of their border security plan Thursday, unveiling a measure that would provide no wall funds.
It would significantly boost spending for scanners at ports of entry, humanitarian aid for apprehended migrants, and new aircraft and ships to police the U.S.-Mexico border. It would freeze the number of border patrol agents and block any wall construction in wildlife refuges along the border.
Without a border security accord, lawmakers could avert another shutdown by once again temporarily financing dozens of federal agencies, perhaps for months.
Trump has been unpredictable in the shutdown debate, mixing softer rhetoric about a multifaceted approach to border security with campaign-style bluster about the wall. Lawmakers negotiating the bill are aware that he could quash an agreement at any time, plunging them back into crisis.
"Obviously, it makes it more challenging," Cornyn told reporters. "You keep talking and try to understand where he is and try to work it out."