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'Trump shutdown' looks more likely after hostile meeting with Democrats

Vice President Mike Pence, center, listens as President Donald Trump argues with House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump’s negotiations with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Tuesday failed to produce a consensus on much of anything except who will bear responsibility if the parts of the government shut down later this month.

“If we don't get what we want, one way or the other -- whether it's through you, through a military, through anything you want to call -- I will shut down the government... I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” Trump said.

It started to go off the rails when Pelosi referred to a partial government shutdown that would result if they fail to reach a budget agreement as a “Trump shutdown.” Trump interrupted, beginning an extended three-way debate about border security, the legislative process, and the midterm election results that wore on for 10 minutes while Vice President Mike Pence sat silently between them.

“This is spiraling downward,” Pelosi said at one point, accurately.

In a statement afterward, the White House called the meeting “constructive.”

“So far, the Democrat Party has made clear they would rather keep the border open than the government open,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. “President Trump was grateful for the opportunity to let the press into the meeting so that the American People can see firsthand that while Republicans are fighting to protect our border, Democrats are fighting to protect illegal immigrants.”

Democrats were similarly dismissive of Trump’s insistence on a wall as a centerpiece of any border security strategy.

"It's like a manhood thing for him," Pelosi told Democrats on Capitol Hill, according to The Associated Press. "As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing."

None of this bodes well for a deal that would keep the entire government open beyond next Friday. Congress has already approved appropriations for the fiscal year 2019 for many government agencies, including the Department of Defense, but the rest are currently funded with a continuing resolution that expires at midnight on Dec. 22.

Funding for a border wall through the Department of Homeland Security remains the biggest sticking point in negotiations, and lawmakers have already delayed an inevitable standoff with Trump on the issue several times. A Senate DHS appropriations bill would provide $1.6 billion for border security, which is what the White House initially requested, but the version of the bill under consideration in the House includes the $5 billion Trump has demanded more recently.

Schumer and Pelosi are now offering Trump continued funding for the Department of Homeland Security at 2018 levels, which would include just $1.3 billion for border fencing and other security measures.

"We gave the president two options that would keep the government open," they said in a statement after the meeting. "It's his choice to accept one of those options or shut the government down."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters at the Capitol he still wants to see a “smooth ending” to the budget dispute as Christmas approaches. Smoothness is not necessarily a priority for Democrats, who are still riding high on the 40 House seats they gained in November’s midterm elections.

“They will be flexible, to a degree. However, based on today’s display in the Oval Office, it’s clear that Democrats will not be backed into a corner,” said Jason Mollica, a former journalist and public relations strategist who teaches at American University.

One complication in negotiations is a growing semantic dispute over what constitutes “wall funding” and what is merely money to erect a physical barrier or a well-fortified fence. Democrats have insisted the appropriations last year and the funding they have offered this year cannot be used to build a wall, but Republicans say it is all part of the wall system Trump demanded.

Trump claimed Tuesday “tremendous amounts” of the wall have already been built, but construction so far has mainly involved fencing and barriers that were approved before he took office or repairs to existing structures. The administration did commission prototypes of several wall designs that have been built near San Diego, though.

If Democrats were confident of their negotiating position before Schumer and Pelosi walked into the Oval Office Tuesday, they were even more so when the two leaders emerged from the White House.

“For Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, this is a huge gift because they provoked Donald Trump into saying he’ll shut the government down and owning that shutdown for a wall he told us another country was going to pay for anyway,” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

However, Republicans said Trump got what he wanted from the meeting by showing how obstinate Democrats are about building a wall to secure the border and prevent illegal immigration.

“They are more interested at this stage in denying Trump a campaign promise than they are in protecting the border,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

With news reports of confrontations at the border and migrants attempting to circumvent existing fencing, he argued now may be the best time for the president to wage this fight. Some of the president’s congressional allies agree.

“Great job sticking to your guns on border security, Mr. President!” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. after the meeting.

Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, stated in a Fox News op-ed Republicans need to provide Trump $5 billion in unrestricted wall funding now because Democrats will never allow it once they take power in January.

“Securing the border isn’t going to happen in a Pelosi-run Congress. We still have three weeks. That’s more than enough time to do what we said,” they wrote.

One particularly tense moment Tuesday came when Trump suggested Pelosi is in a situation “where it’s not easy for her to talk right now.”

“Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats who just won a big victory,” she responded.

While Pelosi bristled at Trump’s suggestion that her position is somewhat precarious, she does have very little margin for error in her bid to become speaker of the House next month and a lot of Democrats in her caucus are adamantly opposed to any wall funding.

“I still think she’s going to be speaker but giving into the White House would certainly endanger her standing with her soon-to-be caucus,” O’Connell said.

If anything, though, Democrats viewed her demeanor and resolve in the meeting as proof of her qualification for the job.

“For Democrats, being the person who stood up to Donald Trump in the Oval Office earns you significant points... It played exactly into her argument that no one is more seasoned than she is in the House for taking him on,” Ferson said.

Some House Democrats have publicly feuded with Schumer in recent weeks over the $1.6 billion proposal, which they consider too generous. In a recent letter, a dozen Democrats from border districts said they were “alarmed” by his position and they believe the party should reject all funding for a physical wall.

“This is much ado about nothing: we all agree and always have: no wall, no $5 billion. There is no dispute amongst us on this,” a Schumer spokesperson said in a statement to Politico downplaying the internal tensions.

Polls show most Americans want Trump to compromise with Democrats on border security, but there are sharp partisan divisions on the issue. A new NPR/PBGS NewsHour/Marist Poll found 57 percent of Americans say Trump should back down to avoid a shutdown and 69 percent do not think a wall should be an immediate priority for Congress at all, but about two-thirds of Republicans want to see the president stand his ground even if it does lead to a shutdown.

“As we saw in 2018, the number one issue that rallies Republicans together is the issue of illegal immigration,” O’Connell said. “As long as Trump frames this as illegal immigration and national security, he’s going to hold Republicans.”

Ferson acknowledged Trump’s defiant embrace of a shutdown will likely play well with his base.

“They’re going to love this stuff,” he said. “I think a healthy part of his base thinks the government should be shut down.”

The practical and political impact of provoking a partial shutdown right now is difficult to predict. About 75 percent of the government is already funded for the next fiscal year, but 600,000 federal employees at DHS, the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Interior, Transportation, and other agencies could still be affected.

“Let’s be perfectly honest,” O’Connell said. “This is really sort of a notional, partial shutdown that nobody will really notice besides those who are trying to make their point.”

Conventional wisdom asserts that shutdowns are bad politics and many on Capitol Hill have warned Trump about this in recent days. However, two years out from the next major national election with the bases of both parties angry and energized, that may not be the case this time.

“It all comes down to how the American people feel,” Mollica said. “They may pin the blame on the Democrats as this goes on, hypothetically. If so, then that would change the dynamic.”

Shutting down the government would be a gamble for Trump because his leverage appears to be fading. If the standoff lasts through the New Year, he will face a Democratic majority in the House in January and Democrats will still have enough votes to sustain a filibuster in the Senate.

“If it’s not resolved beforehand, shortly thereafter it will be,” Ferson said. “The timing of Democrats taking over works into that strategy.”

The president’s legal troubles are also growing. Federal prosecutors directly linked him to campaign finance crimes last week and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to loom over his White House. Republicans have so far refused to abandon him, but more serious allegations could chip away at that support and give Democrats fuel to advance impeachment proceedings.

Schumer and Pelosi highlighted Trump’s pride in shuttering part of the government in their comments after the meeting. At a bill signing event later in the afternoon, Trump also reiterated his willingness to “own that issue.” If neither party sees anything to lose from dragging this out, their contentious White House meeting could just be a preview of a long battle ahead.

“Both sides are going to dig in their heels,” O’Connell said. “They’re just going to wait for the other side to flinch.”

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