Lawmaker describes tense meeting with Trump

House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-NY) details the heated meeting between President Trump and Democratic leaders over funding for the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border.

Posted: Jan 10, 2019 5:41 PM
Updated: Jan 10, 2019 5:44 PM

Twenty days in, and the leaders of a divided federal government have reached total breakdown. The dramatic theater of Wednesday aside, with each passing day it has become increasingly clear that President Donald Trump won't -- and thinks he can't -- buckle on his wall demand. Democrats won't -- and think they can't -- buckle on their refusal to give him money for the wall. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of federal workers miss their first full paychecks Friday, and the bite of the shutdown grows daily. This is, to be blunt, a mess.

Republican aides are increasingly of the mind that the only way out may be for the President to declare the national emergency, claim victory, fight it out in the courts and let the government reopen. But the White House has not told Hill Republicans that's the way they are going to go -- or what they'd even accept to reopen government after an emergency would be declared.

To watch Thursday

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her weekly press conference at 10:45 a.m. ET.
  • Vice President Mike Pence will arrive on Capitol Hill for meetings at 11 a.m. ET.
  • House Democrats will continue to hold votes on, and pass, individual funding bills to reopen shuttered agencies (Thursday: Agriculture and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development).

The emergency declaration

While congressional Republicans privately are more and more resigned to the fact that the President will likely have to go his own way and declare a national emergency to try and get his wall funding, aides say they don't expect it to come Thursday. To this point, the White House hasn't reached out to tell allies it's coming or brief congressional Republicans and staff about what a declaration would actually mean.

Should Trump decide to go that route, those are increasingly important steps that will likely have to be taken, as Republicans are far from united behind a unilateral flexing of executive power.

"Frankly, I'm not crazy about going down that path," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranked Republican in the chamber, told CNN's Manu Raju on Thursday morning. "Inevitably, I suspect it probably gets challenged in court."

There are issues of executive overreach -- something Republicans railed against during President Barack Obama's administration -- as well as concerns about where the money would come from, most likely leftover military construction funds. Hanging over any move is the fact that Congress can actually pass a resolution of disapproval to block any emergency declaration by a president. While Republicans have rarely shown a willingness to buck the President on something this significant to his agenda, it underscores the importance of the White House laying the ground work in advance of any move on that front to shore up wary or concerned allies.

A new Senate gang

Anyone who has been on Capitol Hill long enough knows that when things are intractable, it's only a matter of time before a "gang" of well-intentioned senators get together to find a solution. The success rate of the gangs is not necessarily high. But for rank-and-file senators, particularly those uncomfortable with the President's current strategy, it's a worthwhile endeavor. That's what we saw break out last night, led by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who tends to be in every gang that exists.

Read Manu Raju's piece with all the details about where things stand, and what's being considered policy-wise right now.

This, at least at the moment, is not a realistic effort, according to several senior Democratic and Republican aides. Democrats have repeatedly rejected a deal that includes trading a solution for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, for the wall. Pelosi has done it on the record several times. Behind the scenes, one Democratic aide involved in the shutdown talks texted "LOL" when asked what Democrats were thinking about the new effort.

Graham has done this before, with this administration, on this issue, only to get torpedoed ... by this administration. Democrats don't trust the White House and want to keep any negotiations narrowly focused on reopening the government.

Jared Kushner's involvement in negotiations shows the White House is clearly open to ideas, but Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine actually urged Trump to go the DACA-for-wall route inside the closed door GOP conference meeting on Wednesday, sources say. And he demurred, then made clear he was sticking with his current strategy.

This is all a long way of saying the Republicans involved in this group are serious and seriously want to find a way out. The group is populated by GOP senators who have made clear they want the shutdown to end, and who have urged the President to consider a broad deal to actually get it done. But the effort, nascent as it is, is not being considered real by any of the top players right now. Given the complexity, and repeated failures, of a broad immigration deal, leaders are very wary of further complicating an already seemingly broken dynamic. The lack of trust with the White House on immigration issues -- which is not a feeling exclusive to just Democrats -- also hinders the prospects, aides say. Could that change? If the President suddenly endorses it, or Democrats suddenly get behind it, that certainly would shift the dynamic. But they are nowhere near that right now.

The leadership pitch

Congressional aides tell me members of the group are likely to meet on Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today to let them know what they've been working on and take his temperature on things. Remember, McConnell has made clear, it has to have the President's sign off for him to move forward on anything.

About those Republican cracks

The White House had good reason for concern about GOP unity 72 hours ago, when House GOP leaders were sending word that a group of their members were growing skittish and across the Capitol and more and more GOP senators were voicing concern with the President's position and strategy, or lack there of. The full-on Trump administration blitz that followed -- at the request of GOP leaders -- appears to have had its intended effect, at least for now.

House GOP leaders were facing the possibility of as many as 20 members voting for the Democratic proposal to reopen the Treasury Department on Wednesday. After a visit from Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials, plus a stream of calls behind the scenes, they ended up losing eight.

In the Senate, the President spent an hour talking about the need to stick together and stay unified. There were senators who urged him to reopen the government -- Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Collins -- but Trump, people in the room said, made clear he's sticking to his current path. And McConnell said multiple times on Wednesday that Senate Republicans would be right there with him.

All this underscores that Republicans are skittish, annoyed and frustrated, particularly in the Senate. Complete dysfunction is a bad look for anyone, particularly the so-called World's Greatest Deliberative Body. But they are nowhere near bucking the President. Period.

The continued Democratic pressure play

House Democrats will move to pass two more individual funding measures to reopen the shuttered agencies today, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will go to the Senate floor and ask for unanimous consent to take up the measures the House has already passed to reopen the government Thursday morning. McConnell has made clear he won't take anything up on the floor until the President signs off, so these efforts will fail. But they are part of a continuing effort by Democrats to keep amping up the pressure on Republicans in the hopes of forcing more splits inside the party.

Quote of the moment

"I hope we made clear to you guys after lunch: we're sticking with the President on this." - McConnell, to reporters, when he returned from the meeting with the President and congressional leaders Wednesday afternoon.

This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.

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