Indy DC Download: Congress averts another government shut down as Trump triggers a showdown with Congress

February 16, 2019
In The News

Congress passed a spending package last week avoiding another government shutdown, but President Donald Trump also set up a showdown with lawmakers with an emergency declaration to fund his border wall.

Those machinations came as Nevada’s congressional Democrats received a classified briefing from the Department of Energy on the secret shipment of plutonium the agency sent to the state.

The Senate approved the spending measure 83 to 16 before the bill went to the House, where it passed 300 to 128.

Both Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen voted for the package, which included $1.37 billion to build 55 new miles of physical barriers along the southwest border in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. All of Nevada’s House members also supported the measure.

The package was a compromise negotiated by a group of nine Democrats and eight Republicans from the House and Senate. President Donald Trump had sought $5.7 billion to help build a wall along the border with Mexico, a promise he made during the 2016 presidential campaign. But Democrats refused to provide that amount. The impasse over the wall funding led to a 35-day partial shutdown of the government in January, the longest in U.S. history.

Lawmakers had until midnight Friday, when short-term funding legislation was set to expire, to keep roughly 25 percent of the government running and avoid dealing another blow to federal workers and contractors still feeling the repercussions of the last shutdown. About 800,000 federal workers were affected nationwide, including roughly 3,500 in Nevada.

“I am voting for the bill because of the 800,000 federal workers, for the hundreds of thousands of contract workers, their families and the businesses and communities they support,” said Rosen as she headed into the vote.

Emergency declaration

Trump signed the deal Friday even though it did not include all the funds he demanded. But he also declared a national emergency, which he argues allows him access to $3.5 billion for the wall from military construction spending. Trump also says he will reprogram $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s counternarcotics program and $600 million from the funds collected by the Treasury Department through asset forfeiture. Combined with the $1.37 billion from the spending package, the president would then have about $8 billion to build a wall.

“They say walls don’t work. Walls work 100 percent,” Trump said of Democrats who have argued that a border wall would be ineffective. “It’s all a big lie. It’s a big con game.”

The declaration of emergency is expected to be challenged in court, which would keep the money from being used until the challenges are decided, possibly after Trump’s term ends. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer also held out the possibility of legal action.

Anticipating a lawsuit, Trump, who has moved the ideological balance of the Supreme Court to the right with the confirmation of his two chosen conservative justices, predicted the legal challenge to his executive action would ultimately go before the high court. “And we’ll win in the Supreme Court,” he said Friday.

The Democratic-controlled House is also contemplating taking up a joint resolution after the Presidents’ Day recess to block Trump’s declaration. Such a measure would likely pass the chamber and force a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, where it would only need a simple majority to pass. Republicans, who control 51 of the 100 Senate votes, would have to decide whether to support a president from their own party or buck the commander-in-chief over the expansion of executive powers—a complaint Republicans repeatedly levied against President Barack Obama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he plans to back Trump.

Another Republican who signaled his support was Rep. Mark Amodei.

“I fully support the President using all other tools necessary to secure our Southwest border, and I look forward to assisting in any way I can,” Amodei said in a release Friday.

Some Republicans, such as Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, have argued that the move would set a bad precedent and would allow a future Democratic president to enact policies without the typical input of Congress.

However, even if the resolution were to be approved by Congress, Trump could choose to veto the measure. A two-thirds vote in each chamber would be needed to override a veto. That would mean 67 votes in the Senate, which would require 16 Republicans to break with Trump.

Cortez Masto said Trump’s declaration undermines the bipartisan work of the compromise.

“I’m disappointed that President Trump has chosen to disregard bipartisan negotiations by Congress that funded $1.375 billion for border security technology and investment,” she said in a release. “Instead, the President’s decision to declare a national emergency will redirect funds from programs that are already on the ground combating drug trafficking and will also withdraw critical funds from our military. I will continue to hold this Administration accountable.”

Rep. Dina Titus called the move “an abuse of power.”

“I will work with my colleagues to pursue all possible legal and legislative remedies to prevent President Trump from constructing this vanity project,” she said.

Trump’s threat also piqued the interest of Attorney General Aaron Ford.

“Our office will work with Nevada’s federal delegation and, should Nevada’s federal funds be depleted or harmed in any way by this latest effort, the Trump Administration should be prepared for a legal challenge from my office,” he said.

The measure includes $49.4 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, a $1.7 billion increase over the previous fiscal year. Other details of the deal include $564 million for the installation of imaging equipment in the U.S.-bound lanes of southwest border land ports of entry and $415 million for improvements to the McAllen Central Processing Center and for a new El Paso Customs and Border Protection processing facility.

Briefing on plutonium

Nevada Democrats also met Thursday with Department of Energy (DOE) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) officials for a classified briefing on the secret shipment of plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site.

Rep. Steven Horsford said the briefing was “productive” and that the delegation “expressed our continued outrage by the fact that they unilaterally made this shipment.”

Careful not to disclose any classified information, Horsford added that the delegation received more of the agency’s rationale on why Nevada was selected as the destination for the half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium — and got a commitment from the head of NNSA to re-establish the working group that discusses the uses and mission of the NNSS.

“We also received assurance that they would provide us with additional advance classified briefings based on any new developments that may occur,” he added. “They assured us that there were no other shipments out of the one metric ton that was mandated by the court.”

The plan to store plutonium in Nevada is the result of the DOE and the NNSA’s failure to meet a deadline to complete construction on a South Carolina facility that is meant to repurpose excess plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. A federal judge in May ordered that one metric ton of plutonium be removed from the site.


Also last week, groups from around the country, including Nevada, visited the U.S. Capitol looking to pressure lawmakers to pass legislation to end the uncertainty of those living in the country under Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). TPS is designed to help immigrants from countries destabilized by war or other disasters. Trump has announced plans to end the program for many immigrants. DACA shields immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and allows them to work. Trump sought to end the program, established by his predecessor in 2012, but that is being challenged in the courts.

Daniel Garza, president of the conservative-leaning LIBRE Initiative, said the group urged lawmakers to work on a bipartisan solution.

“This is an issue where there is massive bipartisan support by the American people so we want to spur that and we want to put a little bit of pressure on Congress now,” Garza said.

Donis Hernandez, a Salvadoran immigrant, was one of 23 people who came to Washington. D.C. from Las Vegas to support giving those participating in TPS a path to citizenship. Hernandez, a construction worker with TEAM Construction, which remodels casinos, has lived in the U.S. for 19 years.

“We want Congress to approve legislation to give us residency,” he said.

The group, affiliated Comite TPS Nevada, marched from the White House to the Trump Hotel and then to the Capitol to meet with Nevada lawmakers.

Two House Democrats, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York, plan to introduce a bill after the Presidents’ Day recess providing TPS and DACA recipients with paths to citizenship. The bill will likely pass the Democratic-controlled House, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republicans are in the majority.

Senate approves attorney general

The Senate confirmed William Barr to be attorney general last week, but Nevada’s senators voted against the nomination. Cortez Masto cited concerns over Barr writing a memo critical of the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“An essential quality for an Attorney General is the ability to remain independent and impartial. Mr. Barr’s decision to write an unsolicited memo criticizing the Mueller investigation, in what appears to be an effort to curry favor with this President, shows he cannot be the guarantor of justice,” said Cortez Masto. “And his concerning views on civil rights raise even more questions about his willingness to safeguard the rights of all individuals. For these reasons, I cannot support him.”

Rosen highlighted concerns she has over abortion rights and protecting the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“The Attorney General’s job is to defend our nation’s laws,” Rosen said on Twitter. “I have strong concerns over Mr. Barr’s hostility to laws protecting women’s reproductive rights and his refusal to commit to upholding the constitutionality of the ACA.”

The two senators also lauded passage last week of a public lands bill that included a provision that would permanently renew the authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses money from offshore oil and gas leasing for public-lands conservation.

Following the lengthy shutdown, Cortez Masto signed on to a letter with seven other Senate Democrats requesting details from the Forest Service on the impacts of the recent government shutdown on wildfire and hazardous fuels management.

Lastly, Rep. Susie Lee announced that she joined the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is a group of 48 House members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, who work on bipartisan legislative solutions. Rosen was a member of the group when she was in the House.

Lee last week also signed on to a letter to House Democratic leaders condemning comments from Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota deemed to be anti-Semitic.

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.