The White House is searching for a line of attack against Democrats in its border-funding fight, but can’t seem to find one that sticks.
President Donald Trump and his top aides have sought to blame Democrats in a slew of ways for the government shutdown, now in its ninth day. One minute, Trump aides and allies are accusing Democrats of staying out of talks. The next, they’re blaming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s own bid to be speaker.
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They even tried, unsuccessfully, to drive a wedge between Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
At the same time, Republicans can’t say what kind of deal Trump would accept to reopen the government, or how he would work with Democrats once they retake the House in just four days.
Trump has made no public appearances in several days, only firing off tweets that blame Democrats for the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have been largely silent as they await a cue from the president.
“It is clear that the White House is flailing,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman, said Sunday. “They’ve repeatedly tried to shift blame in ways that are simply not credible. Amid the White House’s continuing incoherence, Democrats have stayed united and on message.”
Amid the disorder, a freewheeling Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) floated his own idea to end the standoff over border security that has halted roughly one-quarter of federal operations.
Graham, the next chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, pitched a plan on CNN on Sunday that would tie legal protections for young immigrants known as “Dreamers” to a $5 billion measure to fund a border wall.
“There is a deal to be had, I think, if the president would get behind it,” said Graham, a Trump confidant who planned to have lunch with the president on Sunday afternoon.
That proposal remains a long shot, especially after Trump himself called off a deal to revive the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program this spring in return for $25 billion for his border wall.
There is also little interest on Capitol Hill at the moment. Senate GOP leaders have not endorsed the idea, and Pelosi said this month that she was unwilling to trade legal status for so-called Dreamers for money for a border wall that she considers “immoral.”
After huddling with Trump on Sunday afternoon, Graham suggested that the president was indeed considering his plan to pair $5 billion for border fencing with broader immigration reforms.
“After lunch, I’ve never been more encouraged. If we can get people talking, we can find our way out of this mess,” Graham told reporters at the White House.
“The president was upbeat. He was in a very good mood and I think he’s receptive to making a deal if it achieves his goal of securing our border and I think we can get there if everybody will start talking to each other,” Graham said.
Still, talks to reopen the government are virtually nonexistent as the partial shutdown enters its second full week.
The House will return for a pro forma session Monday, though no business will conducted until lawmakers return Thursday.
With the standoff lengthening, early polling shows that Trump is paying a political price.
More people blame him than Democrats in Congress for the shutdown. Forty-seven percent of people held Trump responsible, compared with 33 percent who blamed Democrats, according to a poll by Reuters/Ipsos released on Thursday.
And just 25 percent of people support Trump’s decision to shutter government operations over his border-funding demands.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s longtime adviser, said on Sunday that the president is ready to strike a broader deal on security whenever Democratic leaders are willing to resume talks, arguing that Democrats “completely walked away from the table.”
“We haven’t heard from them. It’s complete crickets,” Conway said on CNN.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip, specifically blamed Schumer in a Sunday appearance on Fox News.
“If the Senate’s got a different way and a better way to approach border security, they ought to put that plan on the table. Chuck Schumer was for this in 2006,” Scalise said, referring to a border security law that included fencing as well as new technology. “I’d be curious to know what changed. Is it just that Donald Trump’s the one now requesting it? But if he’s got a better way to keep this country safe, I think it’s incumbent upon him to show the American people what that plan is.”
But Democrats maintain that it’s up to the White House to offer any compromise that can actually pass the Senate. They point out that Republican leaders left town with negotiations completely stalled at the White House level, marking the House GOP’s final act of its eight-year majority.
“At this point, it’s clear the White House doesn’t know what they want when it comes to border security,” Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said on Sunday. “While one White House official says they’re willing to compromise, another says the president is holding firm at no less than $5 billion for the wall. Meanwhile, the president tweets, blaming everyone but himself for a shutdown he called for more than 25 times.”
Pelosi’s office insists that she is ready to negotiate directly with Trump, who hasn’t reached out to her since Dec. 11. The next House speaker plans to return to her Capitol Hill office Monday and Tuesday, though any breakthrough is unlikely until Thursday, when Democrats officially retake the House.
During the first three days of the shutdown, Vice President Mike Pence and the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, did float a series of border-fence proposals that included less than $5 billion but were still far above the $1.3 billion that Democrats have said they would support.
Since then, neither side has budged.
The White House and GOP leaders have tried to blunt some of the political damage, with Trump personally urging his staff to find a workaround to pay the Coast Guard. Separately, Scalise intervened to make sure that homebuyers could still purchase flood insurance plans.
“Great work by my Administration over the holidays to save Coast Guard pay during this #SchumerShutdown,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “No thanks to the Democrats who left town and are not concerned about the safety and security of Americans!”
Still, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency have exhausted their reserve funds, and are now shuttering operations until they receive their new budget. Federal workers are technically still paid for now, but that will end if a deal isn’t reached before the next pay period, on Jan. 11.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, acknowledged on Sunday that Republicans will lose leverage when they turn over control of the House this week, and that they will need to work better with Democrats.
“We’re gonna have to negotiate,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I think that we ought to see what do the Democrats really want. We’ve got to move away from the blame game — blaming the president, blaming the Democrats, Pelosi and Schumer and others — and get back to doing what we’re sent there to do, to fund the government.”
Quint Forgey and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.