Senate weighs emergency coronavirus pandemic funds; Trump seeks $850 billion more

By David Shepardson and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Tuesday prepared to weigh a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill passed by the House of Representatives offering economic relief from the coronavirus pandemic as the Trump administration pressed for $850 billion more.

The House of Representatives over the weekend passed a measure that would require sick leave for some workers and expand unemployment compensation among other steps, including nearly $1 billion in additional money to help feed children, homebound senior citizens and others.

Even before Congress passed its second measure in days, President Donald Trump’s administration wants massive additional spending to help blunt the impact of the fast-spreading disease, which has sunk global financial markets and caused sweeping disruptions to the U.S. economy.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin planned to discuss the $850 billion stimulus package the administration wants when meeting on Tuesday with Senate Republicans at the Capitol, said a U.S. government official said who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations.

The funding would include some aid for airlines along with a payroll tax cut among other provisions. U.S. airlines have sought at least $50 billion in grants and loans.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton, in a syndicated radio interview, said lawmakers could pass the House measure as-is and then take on another bill to include more economic stimulus actions desired by the administration.

The pandemic has already killed at least 83 people in the United States and prompted widespread closings of schools, restaurants and social gatherings of all kinds.

Early Saturday, Congress passed and Trump signed an $8.3 billion package to battle the coronavirus.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate is “anxious” to pass the latest House-passed bill, an action that could happen later on Tuesday.

Republicans said the Senate would work to pass the third measure this week containing the much-larger stimulus because of uncertainty about the Senate schedule caused by the coronavirus outbreak. That would require the House to take up the legislation when it returns from recess next week.

But neither administration officials nor Senate leaders are sure that such a large bill could move that quickly through the Senate.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Susan Heavey, additional reporting by David Morgan and Jeff Mason; editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

U.S. coronavirus death toll rises; New York, Los Angeles region confirm new cases

By Steve Gorman and Laila Kearney

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two more people have died of the new coronavirus in the United States, bringing the toll to 11 and new confirmed cases were reported on Wednesday around the two most populous cities: four near New York and six in Los Angeles.

The first California death from the virus was announced by health officials as an elderly adult with underlying health conditions. It was also the first coronavirus death in the United States outside of Washington state.

Placer County’s public health department said in a statement that the patient tested presumptively positive on Tuesday at a California lab and was likely exposed from Feb. 11-21 on a Princess cruise ship to Mexico from San Francisco.

“Preliminary understanding from the contact investigation is that this patient had minimal community exposure between returning from the cruise and arriving at the hospital by ambulance on Feb. 27,” the statement said.

The person was the second confirmed case of the respiratory disease called COVID-19 in Placer County in Northern California.

In the greater Seattle area, the total number of coronavirus cases climbed to 39 on Wednesday, including 10 deaths, up from 27 cases and nine deaths a day earlier, the Washington State Health Department announced.

The Seattle area has the largest concentration of coronavirus cases detected to date in the United States. Several cases were connected to a long-term care facility for the elderly in the Pacific Northwest state.

In New York state, three family members and a neighbor of an infected man have tested positive, bringing the total in the state to six, officials said. About 1,000 people in the New York City suburb of Westchester County where the family lives were under self-quarantine orders because of possible exposure to the virus, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

“We are, if anything, being overcautious.” Cuomo said.

Los Angeles officials announced six new confirmed travel-related cases in Los Angeles County, including three people who had been to Northern Italy, one of the areas hardest hit in the global outbreak.

Of the six, only one has been hospitalized. The other five are recovering in home isolation.

Los Angeles County declared a local emergency and a public health emergency intended to expand and hasten preparedness efforts.

EMERGENCY FUNDS

In Washington, D.C., U.S. lawmakers reached bipartisan agreement on an $8.3 billion emergency bill to help fund efforts to contain the virus, a congressional aide said. The bill was expected to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives later on Wednesday.

Once the full House approves the bill, the Senate is expected to act quickly so President Donald Trump can sign the measure into law, putting funds into the pipeline to fight the virus.

More than $3 billion would be devoted to research and development of coronavirus vaccines, test kits and therapeutics. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the fast-spreading illness.

In a bid to also help control the spread of the virus outside the United States, $1.25 billion would be set for international efforts, the aide said.

The administration is working to allow laboratories to develop their own coronavirus tests without seeking regulatory approval first, U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said.

The latest data https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed 129 confirmed and presumed cases in the United States, up from the previous 108. They were 80 reported by public health authorities in 13 states plus 49 among people repatriated from abroad, according to the CDC website.

Those figures do not necessarily reflect Wednesday’s updates from three states.

CLASSES CANCELED

On Tuesday, officials said a man in his 50s who lives in a New York City suburb and works at a Manhattan law firm tested positive for the virus, the second identified case in the state.

The four new cases include three family members of the man, who is hospitalized, and a neighbor. Health authorities said one of his children was a student at Yeshiva University, which canceled classes as a precautionary measure.

The hospitalized patient had not traveled to countries with large numbers of cases. The outbreak began in China in December and is now present in nearly 80 countries and territories, killing more than 3,000 people. The first New York case, reported last week, was in a woman who had returned from Iran, where at least 92 people have died.

Governor Cuomo said about 300 students from New York’s college systems, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY), were being recalled from five hard-hit countries – China, Italy, Japan, Iran and South Korea – and would be flown on a chartered plane and then be quarantined for 14 days.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Laila Kearney and Hilary Russ in New York, David Morgan and Richard Cowan in Washington; Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Trump administration weighs emergency funds to combat coronavirus

By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is considering asking lawmakers for emergency funding to ramp up its response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, a White House spokesman and an administration source said on Monday, though they did not say how much money was needed.

“We need some funding here to make sure that we … protect all Americans, that we keep us safe,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox News Channel.

Asked how much funding the administration may ask Congress to approve, Gidley later told reporters at the White House that there was no announcement yet on the amount.

Politico and the Washington Post, citing unnamed individuals familiar with the planning, had reported the administration may request $1 billion funding from the U.S. Congress. An administration official told Reuters the amount was still being finalized, and the request could go to lawmakers this week.

The official said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was seeking an amount that some within the administration viewed as out of proportion, given the limited number of U.S. cases and other HHS funding that has not yet been used.

The outbreak has spread beyond central China to South Korea, Iran and Italy, rattling global markets.

The United States has not seen the kind of community spread that has hit China, but health officials are preparing for such a possibility even as those Americans affected so far have been quarantined.

There have been 13 cases of people diagnosed with the virus in the United States and 21 cases among Americans repatriated on evacuation flights from the virus epicenter of Wuhan, China, as well as from a cruise ship in Japan, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Representatives for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the funding requests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tapped Azar to lead a task force coordinating the response to the outbreak that the department has declared a public health emergency.

Democrats, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, have urged the administration to seek emergency funds after it notified Congress in recent weeks that it had already spent millions of dollars for its virus response, according to the Washington Post.

Trump has been at odds with his own White House advisers over China’s coronavirus response and has sought to downplay the impact of the virus, saying it could fade in April with warmer spring weather – something health experts said is unknown.

“We have aggressively worked to combat the spread of this virus, tried to prevent it as best we could from coming into this country,” Gidley told reporters.

The administration is also grappling with where to send Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who tested positive for the virus after backing off plans to quarantine them in a federal facility in Alabama.

In a statement on Monday, HHS cited a “rapidly evolving situation,” but said that the Alabama center was “not needed at this time” and that it was looking for alternatives.

“Any action that HHS takes, working with our federal, state and local partners, to address this public health emergency will be done in a way that protects both those infected with the virus and other citizens as well,” HHS said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York, and Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and David Gregorio)

Trump-backed ‘conscience’ rule for healthcare workers voided by U.S. judge

Trump-backed ‘conscience’ rule for healthcare workers voided by U.S. judge
By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday voided a White House-backed rule that would have made it easier for doctors and nurses to avoid performing abortions on religious or moral grounds.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan said the so-called “conscience” rule was unconstitutionally coercive, by letting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) withhold billions of dollars of federal funding from healthcare providers unless they complied.

“Wherever the outermost line where persuasion gives way to coercion lies, the threat to pull all HHS funding here crosses it,” Engelmayer wrote in a 147-page decision.

The judge also said the rule conflicted with federal laws governing the obligations of employers to accommodate workers’ religious objections, and hospitals to provide emergency treatment to patients who could not afford it.

Engelmayer’s decision covered a lawsuit by New York state and 22 other states and municipalities, as well as two lawsuits by Planned Parenthood and other healthcare providers.

HHS and the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The rule was scheduled to take effect on Nov. 22.

U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, has made expanding religious liberty a priority, and the conscience rule has drawn support from abortion opponents.

Neither the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James nor Planned Parenthood immediately responded to requests for comment.

The states and municipalities have said the rule could undermine their ability to provide effective healthcare, and upset their efforts to accommodate workers’ beliefs while ensuring that hospitals and other businesses treated patients effectively.

Opponents of the rule have also said it could deprive gay, transgender and other patients of needed healthcare because providers might be deemed less worthy of treatment.

HHS countered that the rule would help enforce “conscience protection” laws that have been on the books for decades.

Engelmayer said these provisions “recognize and protect undeniably important rights,” but the government’s rulemaking “was sufficiently shot through with glaring legal defects.”

The state and municipal plaintiffs are led by Democrats or often lean Democratic.

They also include New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.; the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin; and Cook County, Illinois.

The states’ case is New York et al v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-04676.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

Mexico says presidential plane sale to help fund migration plan

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attends a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Wednesday the sale of the former presidential jet and other aircraft from the last government would help fund efforts to curb migration under a deal struck last week with Washington.

The agreement reached on Friday averted escalating import tariffs of 5% on Mexican goods, which U.S. President Donald Trump had vowed to impose unless Mexico did more to contain migration via Central America to the United States.

In return, Mexico has agreed to toughen up its migration controls, including deploying its National Guard security force to its southern border with Guatemala.

“About how much this plan is going to cost, let me say, we have the budget,” Lopez Obrador said at his regular daily news conference. “It would come out of what we’re going to receive from the sale of the luxurious presidential plane.”

Lopez Obrador said the price tag of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner used by his predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto would start at $150 million, citing a United Nations evaluation. The plane has been on sale for several months.

As soon as he took office in December, the leftist announced plans to sell the plane, whose spacious interior includes a bedroom and is emblazoned with official government seals on the walls and flat-screen monitors.

The jet was acquired in late 2012 for $218 million. It is on sale along with 60 government planes and 70 helicopters.

Lopez Obrador has shunned the often luxurious trappings of Mexico’s wealthy elites, choosing to fly coach.

He has also rolled out a string of welfare programs for the poor and the elderly, cut salaries for top civil servants and says he is saving public money by eliminating corruption.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, editing by Hugh Bronstein and Susan Thomas)

U.S. states sue Trump administration in showdown over border wall funds

A view shows a new section of the border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coalition of 16 U.S. states led by California sued President Donald Trump and top members of his administration on Monday to block his decision to declare a national emergency to obtain funds for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California came after Trump invoked emergency powers on Friday to help build the wall that was his signature 2016 campaign promise.

Trump’s order would allow him to spend on the wall money that Congress appropriated for other purposes. Congress declined to fulfill his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall this year..

“Today, on Presidents Day, we take President Trump to court to block his misuse of presidential power,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

“We’re suing President Trump to stop him from unilaterally robbing taxpayer funds lawfully set aside by Congress for the people of our states. For most of us, the office of the presidency is not a place for theater,” added Becerra, a Democrat.

The White House declined to comment on the filing.

In a budget deal passed by Congress to avert a second government shutdown, nearly $1.4 billion was allocated toward border fencing. Trump’s emergency order would give him an additional $6.7 billion beyond what lawmakers authorized.

Three Texas landowners and an environmental group filed the first lawsuit against Trump’s move on Friday, saying it violated the Constitution and would infringe on their property rights.

The legal challenges could slow Trump’s efforts to build the wall, which he says is needed to curb illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The lawsuits could end up at the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Michigan joined California in the lawsuit.

The states said Trump’s order would cause them to lose millions of dollars in federal funding for national guard units dealing with counter-drug activities and redirection of funds from authorized military construction projects would damage their economies.

In television interviews on Sunday and Monday, Becerra said the lawsuit would use Trump’s own words against him as evidence that there was no national emergency to declare.

Trump said on Friday he did not need to make the emergency declaration but wanted to speed the process of building the wall. That comment could undercut the government’s legal argument.

“By the president’s own admission, an emergency declaration is not necessary,” the states said in the lawsuit. “The federal government’s own data prove there is no national emergency at the southern border that warrants construction of a wall.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Top U.S. lawmakers to resume border talks, avert shutdown

The personalized gavel of House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY), serving as the Chairwoman of a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers from both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, is seen at the start of their first public negotiating session over the U.S. federal government shutdown and border security on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top four Democratic and Republican negotiators in the U.S. Congress on border security funding plan to meet on Monday in an attempt to reach a deal that would avert another partial government shutdown by a Friday deadline.

House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, a Republican, and two other senior lawmakers will attend the meeting, according to a congressional aide.

Negotiations broke down during the weekend over funding for immigrant detention beds and physical barriers that would be funded along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawmakers hope to reach an agreement on Monday to allow time for the legislation to pass the House and Senate and get signed by Republican President Donald Trump by Friday, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security and several other federal agencies expires.

Trump agreed on Jan. 25 to end a 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown without getting the $5.7 billion he had demanded from Congress for a long-promised wall along the border with Mexico. Democrats oppose a wall, calling it ineffective, expensive and immoral.

Instead, a three-week spending deal was reached with congressional leaders to give lawmakers time to resolve their disagreements about how to address border security.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Will Dunham)

Trump pushes border wall fight ahead of State of the Union speech

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting to "discuss fighting human trafficking on the southern border" in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday was set to deliver a State of the Union speech challenging Democrats to approve funding for his long-sought border wall, but stopping short of declaring a national emergency over it, at least for now.

At 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT Wednesday) before a joint session of Congress, Trump likely will stir contention with remarks on immigration policy, after his demand for $5.7 billion in wall funds triggered a historic 35-day partial government shutdown that more than half of Americans blamed him for, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

Millions of Americans were expected to watch the address on television, giving the Republican president his biggest opportunity to date to explain why he believes a barrier is needed on the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The speech was delayed for a week because of the shutdown, which ended on Jan. 25.

When Trump takes center stage in the chamber of the House of Representatives for the big speech, sitting behind him over his shoulder will be his main congressional adversary, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who became House speaker after her party won control of the chamber in November’s elections.

She has shown no sign of budging from her opposition to Trump’s wall-funding demand. That has led Trump to contemplate declaring a national emergency, which he says would let him reallocate funding from elsewhere without congressional action.

A source close to Trump said the president was not expected to take that step, which likely would draw a swift court challenge from Democrats. Instead he will urge a congressional committee to work out a border security deal by Feb. 15.

“He’s going to set the stage,” the source said. “He’ll tell people, ‘Here’s why I should,’ but say, ‘I’m giving Congress another chance to act.'”

Trump continued to push his wall in a Tuesday morning tweet ahead of his evening remarks, noting that the Pentagon has sent more troops to the U.S. southern border.

“We will build a Human Wall if necessary,” he said.

WANTS DEAL FROM CONGRESS

Asked on Tuesday if Trump would use the speech to announce an emergency, White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said the president “has an absolute right to do it” but would prefer that lawmakers forge a solution.

“He wants Congress to finish its work and hopefully come to an agreement, put a deal on his desk that he will sign into law,” Conway told reporters at the White House.

Trump’s speech also will offer an olive branch to opponents as he looks toward the 2020 election, targeting areas he sees for potential bipartisan agreement, such as infrastructure improvements, lowering prescription drug costs and healthcare.

A senior administration official said Trump would “encourage Congress to reject the politics of resistance and retribution, and instead adopt a spirit of cooperation and compromise so we can achieve it.”

Senator Angus King, an independent, on Tuesday told MSNBC he saw potential for bipartisan action over opioids, HIV and infrastructure that could be derailed “if he throws down the gauntlet and gives us another lecture on the wall.”

Trump’s message could also be undermined by his threats to go his own way on the long-promised wall if he cannot get Congress to approve the funding he wants. He has said the wall, which he promised during his 2016 campaign and said Mexico would pay for, is needed to deter illegal immigration and drugs.

Some of Trump’s own fellow conservatives are also urging Trump not to declare an emergency. “I’m for whatever works that prevents the level of dysfunction we’ve seen on full display here the last month, and also doesn’t bring about a view on the president’s part that he needs to declare a national emergency,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week.

OTHER TOPICS

Trump also will address foreign policy, including support for an effort to coax Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro into leaving power and declaring the Islamic State militant group all but defeated. He will also give an update on trade talks with the Chinese.

Asked if he would announce where he will next meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders declined to give any details in an interview with Fox News Tuesday morning.

Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney went over the speech on Monday night with about a dozen supporters including former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, as well as Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a source familiar with the meeting said.

The source said Trump would discuss troop drawdowns in Syria and Afghanistan and that about half the speech would be devoted to foreign policy.

Trump also will claim success on economic policy, including cutting federal regulations, the source said.

Some Democrats have invited guests to the speech to highlight various causes, some at odds with Trump’s policies, making a raucous atmosphere possible inside the House chamber.

Representative Pramila Jayapal said on Monday she would invite climate scientist Lisa Graumlich, dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, to underscore the climate change issue.

“One thing you will see is that the chamber is full and the president is surrounded by women, by people of color, by individuals who have really been hurt by this president and many of the actions that he has taken,” Jayapal said.

Republican strategist and former White House official Raj Shah said the speech offered Trump a chance to turn the page.

“Washington right now looks a little bit petty and a little bit small and the State of the Union is an opportunity to go big and talk in broad themes about what’s good about America and look beyond some of the issues of the last few weeks,” he said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)

Shutdown bites economy as Democrats reject Trump invitation to talk

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump walks before speaking to the media as he returns from Camp David to the White House in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Steve Holland and Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy is taking a larger-than-expected hit from the partial government shutdown, White House estimates showed on Tuesday, as congressional Democrats rejected President Donald Trump’s invitation to discuss the issue.

The shutdown dragged into its 25th day on Tuesday with neither Trump nor Democratic congressional leaders showing signs of bending on the topic that triggered it – funding for the wall Trump promised to build along the border with Mexico.

Trump invited a bipartisan group of members of Congress for lunch at 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT) to discuss the standoff but the White House said Democrats turned down the invitation. Nine Republicans were expected to attend.

Trump is insisting Congress shell out $5.7 billion as about 800,000 federal workers go unpaid during the partial shutdown.

“It’s time for the Democrats to come to the table and make a deal,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

House Democratic leaders said they did not tell members to boycott Trump’s lunch but had pressed those invited to consider whether the talks would be productive or produce a photo-op for the president.

“We are unified,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday morning.

The Trump administration had initially estimated the shutdown would cost the economy 0.1 percentage point in growth every two weeks that employees were without pay.

But on Tuesday, there was an updated figure: 0.13 percentage point every week because of the impact of work left undone by 380,000 furloughed employees as well as work left aside by federal contractors, a White House official said.

SHUTDOWN IMPACT

The partial shutdown is the longest in U.S. history and its effects have begun to reverberate across the country.

Longer lines have formed at some airports as more security screeners fail to show up for work while food and drug inspections have been curtailed and farmers, stung by recent trade spats, have been unable to receive federal aid.

Speaking on CNBC, Delta Air Lines Inc Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said the partial shutdown will cost the airline $25 million in lost revenue in January because fewer government contractors are traveling.

Trump ran for office in 2016 on a promise to build a wall to stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking. He had toyed with the prospect of declaring a national emergency to circumvent Congress to secure the funding, but this week has backed off from that idea, which would attract a court challenge.

Democrats, who took over the U.S. House of Representatives this month, have rejected the border wall but back other border security measures.

They have also insisted that Trump and Republicans reopen government before negotiations occur.

“We can keep on the pressure on negotiations over (border) security but it is long past time that we reopen the government, and make sure it is not federal employees, their families and businesses that are being held hostage,” said Democrat Representative Katherine Clark.

House Democrats have passed a number of bills to fund the roughly one-quarter of federal operations that have been closed, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said the chamber will not consider legislation that Trump will not sign into law.

McConnell, who has mainly stayed out of the public fray on the shutdown, on Tuesday accused Democrats of “acrobatic contortions” to avoid negotiating on the shutdown.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Cornwell, Ginger Gibson, Makini Brice, Susan Heavey; Writing by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bill Trott)

White House cites options for funding border wall, avoiding shutdown

Workers on the U.S. side, work on the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins - RC18E76A6270

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Tuesday it has found a way to build President Donald Trump’s promised border wall without new funding from Congress, stepping away from the president’s threat to shut down the U.S. government over border security disputes.

“We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Fox News. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to shut down the government, we want to shut down the border.”

Trump and Congress, embroiled in a feud over his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, have four days to reach a deal before a partial government shutdown could leave about a quarter of the federal workforce without paychecks.

Last week, in a heated exchange at the White House with Democratic leaders in Congress, Trump declared he would be “proud to shut down the government” if he did not get his demand for $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since then, after days with no apparent progress, the senior Republican and Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee huddled with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just steps from the Senate chamber.

Following that meeting, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby told reporters, “We’re talking seriously about how to reach our goal” of keeping the government funded beyond Friday. He said they were “working with the president, working with the Democrats. There are a lot of variables here.”

A senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, said Trump and Republicans in Congress have floated the idea of lawmakers providing the president $1 billion in new funds to be used for any of his immigration priorities – an idea that Democrats will not accept.

Trump has demanded $5 billion as a down payment on construction of a wall that he argues is needed to keep illegal immigrants and drugs from entering the United States. Building the wall was a key pledge of his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump had originally said Mexico would pay for the wall, but leaders of the United States’ southern neighbor have repeatedly said it would not.

Democrats and some Republicans argue there are less costly, more effective border controls than a wall.

Sanders indicated the White House was backing down from Trump’s threat to shut down the federal government if Congress refused to provide money for his wall.

“There’s certainly a number of different funding sources that we’ve identified that we can use, that we can couple with the money that would be given through congressional appropriations, that would help us get to that $5 billion that the president needs in order to protect our borders,” Sanders said on Fox.

Asked whether the White House was exploring the use of funds, including from the Defense Department, for building the wall and whether that would be legal, Sanders said, “Absolutely.”

But Shelby was less certain.

In response to a reporter’s question on whether Trump could order the Pentagon to shift some of its funds to wall construction, Shelby said: “I don’t know about that.” He added, however, that Trump “does have the power to defend the country” and “the power to protect the border.”

The money Trump wants is a fraction of the roughly $450 billion Congress was poised to approve – before the latest battle over the proposed wall – to fund several agencies which will otherwise run out of money at midnight on Friday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)