House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s assessment of a circus-like public exchange between herself, President Trump, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday may as well describe the chances they’ll cut a deal to keep part of the government open.
“Unfortunately, this has spiraled downward,” Pelosi said.
Trump and congressional Democrats by outward appearances moved further away from a spending deal due next week, just before the scheduled Christmas break, to keep parts of the government funded. Members of Congress began rearranging their holiday plans with the expectation they will be spending at least some of that period in the Capitol.
Congress and the White House face a Dec. 21 deadline to fund the Homeland Security Department and other agencies. The sticking point for weeks has been border-security funding, with Trump and House Republicans demanding $5 billion for a wall. Senate Democrats, some of whose votes would be needed for the final measure to pass, stuck to a maximum of $1.6 billion for fencing and technology to patrol the border with Mexico.
But Tuesday’s White House meeting showed neither side is prepared to give up on its position. Trump proclaimed that he would be “proud to shut down the government over border security," while Schumer and Pelosi proposed one-year stopgaps with less funding for border security than either original proposition.
“It’s going to be tough to get an agreement,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “Tougher now.”
Schumer conceded to reporters after the meeting that he believed the $1.6 billion offer “could not pass the House” but that “the two options we made are better options.” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin added that a previous bipartisan deal came off the table because Pelosi “doesn’t think Democrats will vote for it.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the rest of the meeting, which continued after TV cameras left the Oval Office, was “constructive,” but that “major disagreement remains on the issue of border security,” which Trump repeatedly said required a “wall” that Democrats are loath to support for practical and political reasons.
Trust between the two sides is also apparently deteriorating, with Schumer and Pelosi saying in a joint statement after the meeting that it was up to Trump to accept their offers “or shut the government down.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also took the floor Tuesday morning to say there was “no reason” Democrats “should put the demands of far-left special interests ahead of the safety of American families.
“There is no reason for my Democratic friends to end this year the way they began it,” McConnell added, in reference to a brief shutdown in January over immigration reform.
Democrats appear to have the upper hand politically. A majority of respondents in a Marist College poll conducted for NPR and PBS said Trump “should compromise on the border wall to prevent gridlock.” But about two-thirds of Republicans in the same survey said Trump “should not compromise on the border wall even if it means a government shutdown.”
Liberals have amped up pressure on both Democratic leaders since the party flipped the House of Representatives in last month’s midterm election.
“We’re with Leader Pelosi. This morning in Caucus she said that this is ridiculous that the president is going to try to push us to a shutdown because of funding for a wall which he said Mexico was going to pay for,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the newly elected cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s really absurd, and the American people have to understand that he’s the one that is acting like a child and pushing for something that is really immoral and unnecessary.”
Minority senators were already grumbling about any additional border-security funding, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California calling $1.6 billion “the maximum” her colleagues would support. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat eyeing a run for president, declined to say whether he’d vote for a final appropriation and said he wants “to see a plan that spends America’s money smartly.”
“Congress should not give in to the president’s latest anti-immigration tantrum,” Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat up for reelection in New Mexico in 2020, said Tuesday.
A coalition of outside groups—including the American Civil Liberties Union, Indivisible, the Sierra Club, the Service Employees International Union, and immigrants-rights advocates—is similarly pushing Democrats to reject “Trump’s border wall and demand cuts in funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in the coming fiscal year.”
Some Senate Democrats as recently as Tuesday were prepared to vote for more border-security funding than Schumer and Pelosi proffered to Trump. Sen. Jon Tester, the lead Democratic appropriator for homeland security, said the House preferred the lower dollar figure but that “I would rather go by what we agreed on” this spring. Sens. Doug Jones, Tim Kaine, Angus King, Jeanne Shaheen, and Maggie Hassan also signaled they were comfortable with Schumer’s original proposal.
“Compromise is critical to getting a budget done,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who lost reelection last month and gave her final floor speech Tuesday in part on the need for senators to vote regardless of political consequence. “But there is no responsible person who would hand over this kind of money without knowing how this money is going to get spent.”