Democrats refuse to talk border security until shutdown ends

January 3, 2019

Democratic leaders emerged from a White House meeting Wednesday to say they are willing to talk border security but not until after Congress ends the partial government shutdown, signaling that more than a week away from Washington has only deepened the impasse.

President Trump says he’s ready to negotiate on his $5 billion border wall demand, but warned that he’s prepared for a prolonged shutdown fight, too, unless he sees some give on the part of Democrats.

“It could be a long time. It’s too important a subject to walk away from,” he said during a Cabinet meeting, looking ahead to a new Congress with a Democratic House majority to be seated Thursday.

Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi laid out her plans to reporters at the White House, saying as soon as her troops are seated they’ll try to pass a bill to reopen the government, using legislation based on bills that were written by Senate Republicans over the last months.

“We have given the Republicans a chance to take yes for an answer,” she said.

Democrats are hoping congressional Republicans are ready to break with Mr. Trump.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shot down those hopes, saying Mrs. Pelosi’s plan isn’t going anywhere.

“A total non-starter,” he said, calling it a bad opening for Mrs. Pelosi and hopes for bipartisan compromise in the new Congress. “The Senate will not waste its time considering a Democratic bill which cannot pass this chamber and which the president cannot sign.”

Mr. Trump had the top congressional leaders to the White House Situation Room for a briefing with Homeland Security officials, where he had hoped to make the case for how a wall could help alleviate the growing illegal immigration surge at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican in the meeting, said Democrats weren’t interested in the briefing, cutting off Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s presentation and jumping into politics.

“We never did get through the complete briefing,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Republicans say they’re still waiting for Democrats to make a counteroffer to Mr. Trump, who they say is willing to negotiate down from his $5 billion demand and, at times, has appeared willing to forgo his “wall” demand and accept a border “fence” of the sort Border Patrol agents say it actually needed.

Democrats say they may be willing to talk later, but won’t do that amid a shutdown.

“The president failed to give us even one reason why the eight Cabinet departments and dozens of smaller agencies in the six bills, which are separate and apart from border security, should remain closed,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who was in Wednesday’s meeting.

The shutdown is nearly two weeks old, though so far the effects have been muted. That’s partly because most of the federal government is immune. Some 75 percent of funding was approved on time.

And the Trump administration has issued guidance limiting other pain, including allowing agencies to use left-over money to keep running as long as they can.

More than half of workers at the affected departments and agencies are also deemed essential, and are on the job though they’re scheduled to miss their first paychecks if the shutdown lasts out this week.

Democrats say those 420,000 workers still on the job and some 380,000 workers facing furloughs are unwilling hostages to Mr. Trump’s border wall demands.

“The bottom line is very simple,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. “On our last meeting the president said ‘I am going to shut the government down.’ They are now feeling the heat. It is not helping the president, it is not helping the Republicans to be the owner of this shutdown.”

Democrats’ plan, which they have promised will be the first order of policy business after the House convenes Thursday, would extend a full year’s funding to eight departments that ran out of money on Dec. 22.

Homeland Security, meanwhile, would get a one-month infusion of cash, lasting through Feb. 8, at the same rate of spending as 2018.

Last year’s bill did include $1.3 billion for an earlier installment of border fencing, so Democrats who vote for the Pelosi stopgap plan will be voting to continue that money something that could cause some queasiness on the left wing.

But Mr. McConnell said even if the bill does clear the House, he’s not going to bring it to the floor. Under an agreement reached early in the shutdown, he said the next spending vote will only come after there’s buy-in from all sides including Mr. Trump.

The president showed no sign of backing down, and disputed Democrats’ claims that he’s feeling heat over a prolonged partial shutdown.

“I’m prepared, I think the people of the country think I’m right,” he said.

Update hourly