Key red-state Democrat sides with Trump on wall funding

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the most vulnerable Democratic senators said he supports giving President Donald Trump billions of dollars for his border wall — a sharp break from the rest of the party planning to spurn Trump’s wall in spending negotiations this fall.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who is facing a new round of ads criticizing his position on immigration this week, said that Trump should get much more than the $1.6 billion the Senate Appropriations Committee has been preparing to send him. Trump has repeatedly threatened to shut the government down either before or after the election without a significant infusion of money to fulfill his signature campaign promise, often telling lawmakers he wants $5 billion in the September spending bill.

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The moderate Democrat says he does “not want under any circumstances” a shutdown. So he said Congress should “absolutely” provide the president with a larger amount of border wall funding this fall to avoid one.

“I’m fine with providing him some more. I actually voted for border wall funding three different times,” Donnelly said in an interview here. “I’m fine with that. I’m fine with $3 [billion], $3.5, $4 or $5” billion this fall.

Donnelly supported Trump’s immigration bill, which would cut legal immigration, provide $25 billion for the wall and provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants. He also supported several variations of that and backed the Gang of Eight immigration bill in 2013.

But as Trump makes a potential pre-midterm stand on the wall, Donnelly’s opponent, GOP nominee Mike Braun, accused Donnelly of having an election-year epiphany in supporting more border money as part of the spending bill.

“My gut would tell me he wasn’t saying that nine, 10 months ago,” Braun said in an interview after an event in Mishawaka, Indiana. “He’s going to probably even be cut some slack by his base so he can stay alive and have a chance of staying in contention.”

Donnelly’s position could change the debate in Washington, where GOP leaders are shying away from a confrontation over the border wall ahead of the November elections. For now, many Republicans believe that only a handful of Democrats would support $5 billion in border wall funding, so leaders seem less interested in putting it up for a vote that could allow endangered Democrats to vote for it even as it fails.

Other vulnerable Democrats aren’t quite as enthusiastic as Donnelly. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said “the devil is always in the details.”

“I’ve always supported increased and enhanced border security along our southwest border with Mexico — including physical barriers. The issue is, are we spending the money in the most economic and efficient way possible that actually makes a substantial difference,” she said in a statement.

And a spokeswoman for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security funding panel, said “negotiations are ongoing” on the bill. Tester is also up for reelection in Trump country.

“Jon wants to secure our border and is willing to make responsible investments in manpower, technology, fencing and, in places. a wall. However, he has concerns about the cost of the wall to American taxpayers,” said Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks.

Donnelly is being savaged over his immigration positions, part of a broader Republican strategy to cast Democrats as weak on the border and illegal immigration.

“After pleading to oppose amnesty and to secure our border, Sen. Joe Donnelly instead voted to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants,” intones a narrator in a new ad running in Indiana from One Nation, a group aligned with GOP leaders. “And Donnelly has waffled on supporting Trump’s border wall. Tell Sen. Donnelly, vote to fully secure America’s voter.”

The Democratic senator said the “amnesty” charge likely stems from his support for the Gang of Eight bill, which he says is still supported by his state’s business community. But he said that it’s become almost impossible to find compromise on the issue despite his work on it earlier this year.

“We need to quit using it as a baseball to hit people who are actually trying to get something done in the head,” he said.

Indeed, rather than dealing with protecting young immigrants or comprehensive reform, the president is fixated on using his leverage on the spending bill to make Congress cough up more money. Republicans have been working through less controversial spending bills in the hopes that he will sign them and allow the GOP to fight for the wall money after the election and avoid a shutdown just a month before the midterm elections.

Trump has so far appeared unmoved, repeatedly musing that though people are telling him not to shut down the government, he might do it anyway.

“Whether it’s before or after, we’re either getting it or we’re closing down government,” Trump said last week in Pennsylvania. “We need border security.”

The president said he would “personally prefer” to have the shutdown fight before the election. While that would likely hurt Republican incumbents trying to protect their majority, it also would not help endangered Senate Democrats like Donnelly, who are running as pragmatists who can make government work for their constituents.

Braun said he doesn’t want a shutdown either. Yet despite Trump’s explicit language threatening to cause one, the Republican Senate candidate said Trump is merely trying to drive a negotiation.

“A shutdown for that reason, I think would probably do more harm than good,” Braun said of the wall funding. “It’s like anything Trump does. He’s going to throw out the extreme to maybe negotiate back into a different place.”

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