ANALYSIS | Though faint, a crucial missing element to ending a partial government shutdown in its 29th day, was almost visible Saturday: Senior White House officials flashed a sense of urgency to end their standoff with Democrats.
But what was less clear on a cold and damp evening in Washington was whether White House officials bucked their own views about the stalled talks because they are eager to end the stalemate or eager to blame Democrats if nearly one million furloughed federal workers don’t get paid again next Friday.
President Donald Trump raised eyebrows Friday evening when he announced he would offer a proposal to end the shutdown in a Saturday afternoon remarks. When he did, he offered three-year extensions of two immigration programs important to Democrats in exchange for his $5.7 billion demand for border wall funding that is the sticking point in getting 800,000 furloughed federal employees back to work.
Watch: Remember When Donald Trump Wanted Mexico To Pay for the Wall?
“I think we’re going to reach out to every member of Congress, from leadership in both parties to the rank and file,” Vice President Mike Pence told a group of reporters after the president’s remarks. “And I expect the American people are going to be reaching out to them. ... The president wants to resolve this."
Then the vice president paused, his face growing a bit more serious, as he added a telling assessment of the mood of the country amid Trump’s declining poll numbers and warning signs that the partial shutdown already is dragging down the economy, including a recent White House assessment that predicted its impact will be twice as bad as first expected.
Looking for a solution?
“Look,” Pence said sternly, “the American people want this solved.”
Minutes later, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also seemed to express urgency to either find a deal — be it the one the president floated Saturday and the Senate will take up next week or another compromise that can pass both chambers — or use a Senate failure as a bludgeon over the collective heads of congressional Democrats.
“If this bill is filibustered on Tuesday, on the motion to proceed, people will not get paid. I’m very curious to see how Democrats, especially in the Senate, choose to deal with this piece of legislation,” Mulvaney said, referring to a midnight Tuesday deadline for Trump to sign a government-opening bill into law so furloughed government employees won’t miss their second paychecks this month next Friday.
Pence and Mulvaney are experienced politicians. The former was a House GOP leadership team member when he represented Indiana and the latter was a leading conservative voice as a congressman from South Carolina. Both know when political winds are blowing hard in their faces rather than at their backs — and numerous polls make clear the Trump White House is fighting a strong political headwind on the shutdown impasse.
Something appeared to change inside the West Wing midweek.
On Wednesday morning, one senior official was asked by a Roll Call reporter why the president wasn’t planning to do exactly what he did on Saturday: lay out a new proposal even though he and aides for months had said Democrats have rejected multiple White House plans and should make the next move.
That reporter was told a young child would know that Trump going first would amount to the “worst negotiating” tactic because he essentially would be “making an offer against yourself.” But by Thursday night, Pence and White House adviser Jared Kushner were in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office explaining the package introduced Saturday to the Kentucky Republican and securing his pledge to bring it to the floor.
Between the Wednesday morning conversation with the senior official and the Pence-Kushner-McConnell Thursday evening confab, Pence explained, the shift came from the president himself.
“The president said, ‘If these are priorities we’re hearing from rank-and-file Democrats … let’s add them to our proposal,” Pence said when asked about the internal conversations leading up to the Saturday remarks. “I think millions of Americans are going to find the president’s leadership on this very welcome.”
Democrats, to be sure, have blasted Trump for, in their view, not showing much leadership. In fact, they insist he has done the opposite since he surprised McConnell and most of Washington when he bowed to conservative pressure last month by announcing his opposition to a Senate-passed bill that would have averted the shutdown.
“The President’s trade offer — temporary protections for some immigrants in exchange for a border wall boondoggle — is not acceptable,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey said Saturday.
“On Day 29 of the ‘Trump Shutdown,’ the solution is simple: reopen the government, pay our federal employees, and then negotiate border security and immigration policy proposals that can command bipartisan support,” the New York Democrat said.
And one Democratic aide, before Trump addresses the country and Pence spoke with reporters, blasted the president’s tactics since before the shutdown started. That source called Trump’s new offer a “non-serious product of negotiations amongst WH staff to try to clean up messes the president created in the first place.”
A new sense of urgency
Whatever their immediate goal — a government-opening solution or a public relations win next week — Trump and White House officials seem to have a new sense of urgency that is strong enough for them to be willing to flack from the president’s conservative base.
James Carafano, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation said Saturday the president should “be applauded” for trying to end the shutdown before ripping into his latest plan toward doing so.
“However, including amnesty in the new proposal is not the way to do it. Amnesty encourages further illegal immigration, incentivizes the tragedy of human trafficking, and undermines our citizens’ confidence in the rule of law,” Carafano said. “Unlike many in Washington, President Trump has shown himself to be serious about securing the border and fixing our broken immigration system. For this he is to be commended. However, the proposed compromise is not the best way forward.”
The vice president did not dismiss a reporter’s notion that the administration would need Democrats in both chambers to pass the Saturday plan because they would lose many conservatives over those very concerns.
Pence declined to describe what kind of vote coalition the administration will aim to cobble together next week when the Senate votes on the plan. But he both tried to assuage any reluctant Republicans and reach out to needed Democrats.
“There is no amnesty in the president’s proposal. There is no pathway to citizenship in this proposal. It’s three-year relief for TPS and DACA,” he said. “We’re going to work hard and reach across the aisle.”
And in perhaps the best illustration of the White House’s new sense of urgency — whatever the goal — Mulvaney tried several times to pressure Democrats without naming any.
“I have good friends in other party,” the acting chief of staff said, claiming several Democratic lawmakers have “called or texted to say this seems like it makes a lot of sense. … Can Democrats separate themselves from their extreme left and work out a compromise on border security? I think a lot of Democrats in the House that want to do that.”
But first, the White House has to get passed a narrowly divided Senate. That will be an uphill fight.
Jim Manley, a former senior aide to then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, has his doubts. “So as far as I can tell this so called deal trump is going to unveil this afternoon won’t get 60 votes in the senate,” he tweeted. “The question is whether it sets the stage for additional negotiations.”
Re: trumps announcement at 4 . I would characterize these dueling proposals as seemingly somewhere between the end of the beginning of the shutdown and the beginning of the end. Or something like that....— jim manley (@jamespmanley) January 19, 2019
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.