As the partial US government shutdown enters a third day, lawmakers have left Washington for the Christmas holiday with no sign of urgency to resolve the fight over President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall money.
Unlike shutdowns of the past, Congress and the White House aren’t racing to reopen the government. Offices of congressional leaders who are responsible for negotiating with the president are shuttered as Trump remains at the White House after canceling a trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Previous government closures have put Washington in crisis mode with round-the-clock talks, strategy sessions and public posturing. Not so, this time. The next possibility for votes in the House and Senate is on Dec 27, but Democrats have indicated the two sides are far from a deal. If there’s no agreement, many lawmakers won’t return until the new session of Congress starts on Jan 3, when Democrats take control of the House.
Democrats said Monday they’re having trouble negotiating with the Trump administration. “Different people from the same White House are saying different things about what the president would accept or not accept to end his Trump Shutdown, making it impossible to know where they stand at any given moment,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in joint statement.
The president has been attacking Democrats over the wall on Twitter, and continued on Monday. “I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security,” Trump wrote. In a later tweet, he said the administration just awarded a contract for a section of wall in Texas and that “Democrats must end Shutdown and finish funding.”
On Sunday, the White House signaled there was no end in sight to the shutdown. “It’s very possible that the shutdown will go beyond the 28th and into the new Congress,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Pelosi on Saturday made a similar prediction in a letter to Democrats. Pelosi, likely to become House speaker, said that if the shutdown continues when Democrats take control of the chamber they would quickly pass legislation to reopen shuttered agencies.
In a sign the president’s strategy has sparked serious unease among Republicans, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas — the only senator at the Capitol Monday — suggested a compromise to reopen the government but without wall funding.
“The border needs more money, just to take care of people that seek asylum and what’s going on down there,” Roberts said. “So, if we can do that, without the wall, I think that’s a solution. But a lot of people are dug in on this issue.”
Trump was set to hold a meeting on border security Monday afternoon with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other DHS officials, according to the White House.
Unlike the other two shutdowns this year, the one that started Saturday includes only part of the federal government -- nine of 15 departments, representing about a quarter of the $1.24 trillion in government discretionary spending for fiscal year 2019. Many of the biggest government functions, including the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, have already been fully funded through September.
The partial shutdown -- along with Trump declaring Monday, Christmas Eve, a federal holiday -- may be contributing to a less-than-urgent approach to the negotiations.
“When everybody leaves town, it takes the pressure off for a deal,” said New York Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican. “The American people expect both sides to figure it out, to come to a compromise.”
Asked why Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left Washington, spokesman Mike Ricci said by email the House will pass a plan that can get through the Senate and that the president agrees to sign. “The White House is engaged in talks with Senate Democrats, and when the Senate acts, the House will be prepared to follow,” Ricci said.
The fight between Democrats and Trump is over $5 billion for wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border, a relatively small amount by Washington standards. But both sides have staked out firm positions. Trump campaigned on building a wall, which he’d originally said Mexico would pay for. Democrats say a wall is wasteful and ineffective.
The outcome of the shutdown will set the stage for the next two years of divided government in Washington, with Republicans in control of the White House and Senate and Democrats running the House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Trump and the Democrats need to resolve the dispute over boarder funding before he brings up legislation to end the shutdown in the Senate. Even though Republicans hold a majority in the chamber, they need Democratic votes to get to the 60-vote threshold to pass funding measures.
The two sides don’t appear close to a deal, even though their offers differ by tiny fraction of the overall federal budget.
There was a flurry of activity Friday night and Saturday, including a proposal to end the impasse from the White House to Schumer of New York. The Saturday offer was $2.5 billion for border security, including new fencing and $400 million for Trump immigration priorities, according to a Democratic aide. A spokesman for Schumer said after the offer that the two sides were far apart in negotiations.
Schumer has said Trump must abandon his border wall to reopen the government, while Trump has insisted he get more than the $1.6 billion for border upgrades that Senate Democrats previously backed. The negotiations have centered on border security funding amounts and how that spending would be restricted.
Even if House Democrats pass a bill in January with no wall funding, and the Senate goes along, there’s no indication Trump would sign it or that Republicans would override the president to reopen the government -- which requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
Define ‘The Wall’
Any ultimate deal will likely depend on what defines “the wall.” The White House has opened the door for a compromise by talking about “steel slats” rather than the concrete wall Trump touted in the past. Trump tweeted out a drawing of a barrier made with vertical spike-tipped slats last week.
Mulvaney said on Fox News that the drawing in Trump’s tweet is what the administration wants.
“In the Democrats’ mind, that is not a wall. So they have offered us $1.3 billion to build the barrier that we want -- but then they go on TV and say there’s no money for the wall,” he said. “We’ve already told the Democrats we want to build what the president tweeted out. It doesn’t have to be a 30-foot tall concrete” barrier, he said.
Some Democrats still aren’t on board. “No steel slats,” tweeted Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.