Trump Plays Down Emergency Option to Get Wall Funding

A rally and protest by government workers and their supporters against the government shutdown on Friday.


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joseph prezioso/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—President Trump said Friday he wasn’t planning any imminent declaration of a national emergency to pay for a border wall, saying it was “up to Congress” to pass a spending bill funding a barrier.

In a White House meeting on border security Friday, Mr. Trump said: “What we’re not looking to do right now” is a national emergency. He called an emergency declaration an “easy solution” but said, “I’m not going to do it so fast.”

The stance marked a reversal from recent comments, in which he had indicated he was likely to declare an emergency amid the impasse with Congress.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of federal employees missed paychecks Friday as the partial government shutdown neared breaking the record for the longest in history.

Lawmakers and Mr. Trump have made little progress in resolving the impasse over the president’s demand for $5.7 billion to pay for a wall along the border with Mexico. The shutdown will reach 22 days at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, eclipsing the length of previous closures.

In one sign that lawmakers felt increased pressure, the House on Friday passed a bill approving back pay for federal employees who missed their paychecks. The bill, which the Senate approved late Thursday, mandates that the roughly 420,000 essential employees now working without pay and the 380,000 furloughed workers be compensated as soon as the government reopens. Mr. Trump said Friday he would sign the bill.

Mr. Trump continued to make his case Friday.

“The Steel Barrier, or Wall, should have been built by previous administrations long ago. They never got it done—I will,” he Trump said on Twitter.

Since negotiations with congressional Democrats collapsed this week, Mr. Trump has been considering declaring a national emergency at the border. Doing so would enable him to divert military construction funds to build a wall along the border, although such a move likely would meet immediate legal challenges. Federal law allows the president to halt military construction projects and divert those funds for the emergenc

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concern Friday after the White House asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look into projects approved in a 2018 bill providing disaster relief for Puerto Rico, Texas, California, and Florida to see whether funding could be diverted to build the wall if Mr. Trump declares an emergency.

“It’s going to piss off a lot of members,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R., Idaho), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, adding that the Army Corps has projects across the country.

If he declares an emergency, Mr. Trump could also try to divert Pentagon funding, but that also has sparked opposition—from Republicans and Democrats worried it could affect military readiness.

“I don’t want him to  do that,” said Rep. Roger Williams (R., Texas), whose district includes Fort Hood. The army base has projects at its barracks and elsewhere that Mr. Williams said he didn’t want to see delayed. “I would hate to see that money moved around.”

Democrats warned that if Mr. Trump declares a national emergency to build the wall, he could set a precedent that could backfire on Republicans under a Democratic president in the future.

“They should be concerned that if he wants something passed, he or she is going to try to bypass the Congress by going this particular route,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas).

But some Republicans said Mr. Trump had no choice but to declare an emergency, given the impasse with Democrats.

“Mr. President, Declare a national emergency NOW,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Twitter Friday. “Build a wall NOW.”

Speaking after lawmakers had left Washington for the weekend, Mr. Trump called for Congress to return and vote for funding for a wall or steel barrier. “I don’t care what they name it,” he said. “They can name it peaches.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, groups of Republicans continued to search for agreements they hoped would chart a path out of the impasse.

On Friday, Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Jerry Moran (R., Kansas) introduced legislation that would establish a $25 billion trust fund for border security to pay for at least 700 miles of reinforced fencing, additional physical barriers and more technology.

The bill also would include protections for a group of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age. Mr. Trump ended an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, shielding hundreds of thousands of the immigrants from deportation, but his action was rejected by an appeals court in November. The issue is expected to be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The bill from Messrs. Portman and Moran would allow the immigrants, known as Dreamers, to continue to renew their protected status every two years.

“This measure represents a permanent legislative solution that will allow those in the DACA program to stay here and continue to contribute to our society while strengthening our border security to protect all Americans,” Mr. Portman said in a statement Friday.

Under the DACA program, immigrants were granted renewable protection from deportation for two years. It allowed recipients to get work permits and have access to health care from their employers. It doesn’t offer a path to citizenship.

Democrats were unlikely to view the bill as a fair trade, as it swaps $25 billion in border security for legal status, not a path to citizenship, for the young immigrants, an aide said.

Mr. Trump has also indicated to lawmakers this week that he believes the time to address the DACA population is after a Supreme Court ruling on it.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com