WASHINGTON — Nearly 173,000 food stamp recipients in the Buffalo metro area and millions more nationwide received a reprieve late Tuesday as the Trump administration announced that it will be able to fund their benefits through February.
But waterway maintenance in Buffalo and construction at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station could be starved of funds if President Trump declares an emergency at the southern border and decides to shift funds from other defense projects to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
Those were among the central developments Tuesday as the partial government shutdown dragged into its 18th day — and as Republicans generally continued to back President Trump's strategy of refusing to fund about a quarter of the federal government until and unless Congress sets aside $5.7 billion for the border wall.
“I know there has been genuine concern across America” regarding the potential loss of food stamp benefits on Feb. 1, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters in a conference call. “The benefits for February will be provided."
Perdue said his agency will do that by giving the states their February food stamp allocations early, on Jan. 20 — before federal appropriations for the program expire at the end of the month.
"It works and it is legally sound," he said.
Hours before Perdue spoke, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spoke on the potential for cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — otherwise known as "SNAP" or food stamps — after a meeting with Democratic members of Congress from the state.
"We have cuts to the SNAP program where literally poor children will have less to eat" if the program is not funded by February, Cuomo said.
Cuomo later tweeted that 2.7 million New Yorkers could lose their SNAP benefits because of the shutdown. In addition to about 173,000 people who get the benefits in Erie and Niagara counties, the statewide total also includes more than 53,000 food stamp recipients in Western New York's other six counties.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, echoed Cuomo's concern over the SNAP program in a tweet after the meeting with the governor.
Noting that 39 million Americans nationwide could lose their SNAP benefits if they are cut off by the shutdown, Gillibrand said: "Over half of the food stamp recipients are children. So that means American children will be going to bed hungry."
Perdue's announcement means that won't happen, at least not in February. But Perdue said he could not guarantee that the SNAP program could be funded through March if the shutdown were to last that long.
Republicans continued to blame Democrats for the shutdown, citing the fact that Democratic leaders have refused to give Trump any more in border security funding than the $1.3 trillion the Senate agreed to last year.
Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, was among those pinning the shutdown on the Democrats.
"They are hung up on the partisan politics of the word 'wall,' " Reed said.
Nevertheless, Reed said he is increasingly concerned about the effects of the shutdown.
Cuomo came to Washington to discuss two central issues: the shutdown and the limits Congress placed last year on the state and local tax deduction — which, he said, will mean a 30 percent tax increase for some New Yorkers this year.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said the new Democratic House can and should vote to restore the full "SALT" deduction, as it is known, even though such legislation would likely die in the Republican-controlled Senate.
But Higgins said he had another worry on his mind: the possibility that Trump will end the stalemate over the wall by proclaiming a national security emergency at the southern border.
In doing so, Higgins said, it's conceivable that Trump could find the funds to build the wall by reallocating funds set aside by Congress for countless other tasks — including routine Army Corps of Engineers maintenance work on Buffalo's waterways and ongoing construction at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
While it's unclear exactly where Trump would find the funds to build the wall, the 1976 law that he would cite to do that mandates that a president can pull such funds from other Department of Defense construction projects only.
That's why Higgins fears that the Army Corps funding in Buffalo and construction work at the Niagara Falls base could be in danger.
"He threatens to do some real damage to that," Higgins said.
Western New York's two Republican lawmakers offered differing opinions on whether Trump can or should declare an emergency to build a border wall.
Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, blamed the shutdown standoff on the intransigence of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
“If President Trump deems the violent demonstrations and illegal entry along our southern border a national emergency, I trust his judgment and stand behind his decision 100 percent," Collins added. "Protecting American citizens should be a top priority, and I would applaud the president for doing everything in his power to stop this illegal immigration crisis once and for all.”
Reed said that while there's an argument to be made that the border situation is an emergency, there's a better way to solve the issue.
"My preferred path to the president taking action is that we in Congress do our job and appropriate this money" for the wall, thereby ending the shutdown, Reed said.