President Donald Trump stepped back Monday from demanding a down payment for his border wall in must-past spending legislation, potentially removing a major obstacle to a bipartisan deal just days ahead of a government shutdown deadline.
Trump told a gathering of around 20 conservative media reporters Monday evening that he would be willing to return to the wall funding issue in September, according to two people who were in the room. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the get-together, which was not originally intended to be on the record.
The border wall money is fiercely opposed by Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass the government-wide spending legislation that comes due Friday at midnight. The wall is also unpopular with many Republicans, and GOP negotiators on Capitol Hill were uneasy about the clash over the wall potentially sparking a government shutdown.
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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who has a key role providing Democratic votes to pass the legislation, welcomed Trump's reported shift on the wall.
"It's good for the country that President Trump is taking the wall off the table in these negotiations," Schumer said late Monday. "Now the bipartisan and bicameral negotiators can continue working on the outstanding issues."
The wall was the most pressing issue confronting lawmakers as they returned from a two-week spring recess to face a critical deadline. Congress must pass a $1 trillion catch-all spending bill to pay for all agencies of government or trigger a partial shutdown Saturday, which happens to coincide with the 100th day of Trump's presidency.
"I'm optimistic. I don't think anybody wants a shutdown," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said as he exited a meeting of GOP leadership. "The White House and basically the minority leaders of the House and Senate have to have some level of agreement on the things that you're adding."
The negotiations over the spending bill took center stage Monday despite a separate White House push for fast action to revive health care legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. After signaling last week that they hoped for a vote as soon as this week on a rewritten health bill, White House officials softened their stance Monday. Echoing the views of House GOP leaders, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said there would be a vote on health care legislation when House leaders count the 216 votes needed to pass it.
"I think we want to make sure that we've got the votes and we're headed in the right direction before putting some artificial deadline," Spicer said.
Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were embarrassed last month when they had to pull their "Obamacare" replacement bill off the floor without a vote as it became clear it would fail. Since then leaders of conservative and moderate factions in the House have been negotiating on a compromise allowing states to opt out of certain "Obamacare" requirements, and they appear to be making progress, although legislative text had not been finalized as of Monday.
The original GOP bill eliminated many of the "Obamacare" mandates, offered skimpier subsidies for consumers to buy care and rolled back a Medicaid expansion. Conservatives balked, saying it didn't go far enough.
With Democrats unanimously opposed, it remains to be seen whether the health care deal will come together and attract the needed support. Trump talked it up on Twitter, writing Monday: "If our health care plan is approved, you will see real health care and premiums will start tumbling down. ObamaCare is in a death spiral!"
Trump also pushed for his border wall, a central campaign pledge that he still insists Mexico will pay for in the end, though Democrats and even most Republicans doubt that will ever come to pass. Cost estimates range past $20 billion and the White House had been seeking $1.4 billion as a down payment in the spending bill.
Trump turned again to Twitter: "The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)! If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be! #BuildTheWall."
But some of the conservative journalists who met Monday evening with Trump reported he said wall funding could wait until the fall. Prior to the White House demand late last week for border wall money, it had largely been assumed on Capitol Hill that the spending measure would include funding for additional security steps along the border, but that there wouldn't be any money explicitly dedicated for new wall construction. That approach now appears likely to prevail.
The other major stumbling block on the spending bill involves a demand by Democratic negotiators that the measure fund cost-sharing payments to insurance companies that help low-income people afford health policies under Obama's health law, or that Trump back off a threat to use the payments as a bargaining chip.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.