Senate Republicans didn’t put too many questions to President Donald Trump when he joined them for lunch on Tuesday, but the party’s most vulnerable incumbent did make one big ask: Please, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller pleaded, don’t shut down the government over funding for a border wall before the midterm elections.
Picking that fight during an election season would hurt Republicans at the ballot box, Heller told Trump, according to an attendee and two people briefed on the meeting. Though Heller prefaced his request by heaping praise on the president, Trump was noncommittal. “We’ll see what happens,” he told the group.
Heller, who confirmed he asked Trump not to shut down the government, was speaking for Republican lawmakers who fear that the president’s desire to follow through on one of his signature campaign promises could undermine their attempt to maintain control of the upper chamber. While Trump held campaign rallies a raucous audience pushing him to “build the wall” at the U.S. border with Mexico, many Senate Republicans want to avoid a government shutdown at all costs — at least between now and the November elections.
Government funding runs out on Sept. 30, and Trump is laser-focused on getting his wall money in the next fiscal year, telling senators on Twitter not to take their usual August recess unless the border is secured.
“He talked about border security, absolutely, and how important that was,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of the Tuesday lunch.
Trump, who has been exercised about what he views as the glacial pace at which his administration is progressing on securing the border, said Tuesday, “We need to get this done.” He was referring to border security in broad strokes and avoided the question about putting off a shutdown fight, according to attendees.
But the president has in recent weeks expressed frustration with his advisers about the lack of progress on border security. He blew up at his homeland security chief, Kirstjen Nielsen, for example, during a Cabinet meeting earlier this month, telling his advisers that the border remains too porous, and he has privately groused to friends that his team isn’t being aggressive enough.
While the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill Trump signed into law in March allocated $1.6 billion for border security, it focuses on fencing rather than a massive wall as envisioned by the president and is far short of the $25 billion that White House officials wanted. That was one of many aspects of the legislation that infuriated the president and made him tell associates subsequently that he wished he had vetoed the effort and would stop future, similar efforts.
Heller, who is facing Democratic challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen in November, is widely considered the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate and has for months now sought to chart middle-of-the-road positions that will appeal to Nevada’s moderate voters without drawing Trump’s ire.
In June, he announced he would oppose a Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, a move that prompted threats of $1 million worth of television attack ads from an outside group led by the president’s top campaign advisers. By September, he was backing a repeal-and-replace effort led by Graham and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
Since then, Heller and Trump have warmed up to each other, with Trump intervening in Nevada’s Republican Senate primary, urging Heller’s Republican challenger, Danny Tarkanian, to leave the race and vowing to campaign for Heller.
"As I told the President yesterday, we should not be debating a government shutdown in September,” Heller said in a statement on Wednesday. “Congress needs to do its job now and get the government funded before we break in August.”