As senior White House officials huddled in Capitol backrooms with Democratic leaders Friday as a government shutdown beckoned, a cable news anchor dramatically called the last-ditch meetings a sign “something big is in motion.”
Reality check: Major differences remain with no clear plan on resolving them.
Vice President Mike Pence, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner met with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan as the clocked ticked down. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., was involved in the eleventh-hour talks, as were shutdown averting-minded senators. Cable news and Twitter lit up with declarations that a deal was imminent.
But as the afternoon twilight faded into an unseasonably warm Washington night on the first day of winter, all they really agreed to do was to keep talking. More to the point: They agreed to President Donald Trump and Schumer to merely start negotiating.
“I hope Senate Democrats will work with the White House on an agreement that can pass both Houses of Congress and receive the president’s signature,” McConnell said during evening floor remarks, making clear a shutdown was inevitable and it was up to two leaders from the Queens borough of New York to get more than 800,000 federal workers back on the job.
The House and Senate are slated to both gavel back in session at noon Saturday, and Trump canceled his trip to South Florida for a holiday vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Talks will resume, but here are three roadblocks that Trump and Democrats will have to break through:
What’s in a name?
It turns out, quite a lot. A Schumer aide said Friday Senate Democrats continue to float to White House officials and Republicans one option that was in a Department of Homeland Security spending bill the chamber passed earlier this year. That included $1.3 billion for a border barrier — but for “fencing,” not a “wall.”
The president realizes the word his supporters made famous with their rally chants of “Build the wall!” is a problem for Democrats. The marketer in chief this week tried rebranding his border wall project, admitting he did it to help Democrats.
“At this moment, there is a debate over funding border security and the wall, also called — so that I give them a little bit of an out — ‘steel slats,’” Trump said Thursday. “We don’t use the word ‘wall’ necessarily. But it has to be something special to do the job: steel slats.”
A design of our Steel Slat Barrier which is totally effective while at the same time beautiful! pic.twitter.com/sGltXh0cu9— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
This is about the Republicans’ far-right flank and Democrats’ far-left faction. The former gets fired up by the notion of the concrete-and-steel “wall” candidate Trump sold them, and the latter is insulted and inflamed by it. A House-passed stopgap that included more than $5 billion for the border barrier did not include the words “wall” or “fencing” — or “slats,” for that matter. But the roadblock won’t be the actual bill text, it will be how both sides market any eventual agreement before both chambers can vote on it and it’s delivered to the White House — or Mar-a-Lago — for Trump’s signature.
They’re not “just tweets” anymore, as some Trump critics have tended to write off his social media posts as the rantings of an attention-seeking president. This week went a long way to supporting the White House’s stance that his posts are official policy statements — see: his Syria troop withdrawal announcement, his attempt to portray Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation in protest of his boss’s policies as an orderly retirement, and his Friday tweetstorm that made the ongoing shutdown inevitable.
The Democrats, whose votes we need in the Senate, will probably vote against Border Security and the Wall even though they know it is DESPERATELY NEEDED. If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
Reporters filed back and forth from their workspace Friday in the White House basement behind the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office, in part trying to make sense of just what his tweets meant for efforts to avert his third full or partial government shutdown.
On Friday, he tried to brand the coming closure of nine Cabinet-level agencies and a handful of smaller federal entities with one tweet as a “Democrat Shutdown!” Twitter is where the president communicates directly with his base, meaning his posts often offset his attempts in other venues to reach out to Democrats. For instance, several Friday morning tweets contradicted his attempts to give the opposition party an “out” with his “slats” branding.
“The Democrats are trying to belittle the concept of a Wall, calling it old fashioned. The fact is there is nothing else’s that will work, and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better,” a raging and frustrated president wrote. That means he might agree to one thing with Schumer, only to undermine that progress the next morning — or in the same hour — with a single tweet meant to placate his conservative base.
Schumer and Democrats have repeatedly floated the Senate-passed figure for the border barrier of $1.3 billion, part of a $1.6 billion “border security” proposal. House Minority Whip Steny B. Hoyer recently said this of that amount: “I think that can probably be agreed upon.”
Sanders told Roll Call Friday afternoon that Trump likely would drop his demand for $5 billion for the project, indicating there is a number between $1.6 billion and $5 billion that he would accept.
But White House officials have said that before. And they never give as much as a ballpark estimate of what their boss might settle for.
“The biggest problem is that we just don’t know what the president will sign,” Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said Friday. “We heard last week what he would sign — that’s no longer what he will sign.”
That is perhaps the biggest roadblock that must be cleared as talks resume Saturday.
No one knows where the sweet spot is on “wall,” “fencing” or “steel slats” funding. Not Trump’s top aides. Not Republican senators. Not Schumer. Not McConnell. Not Speaker Paul D. Ryan. Not House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And, by all indications, not the president himself.
Jennifer Shutt and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.
Remember When Donald Trump Wanted Mexico To Pay for the Wall?