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Three Things to Watch as Partial Government Shutdown Plods On

White House, Capitol eerily quiet without a sense of urgency to end crisis

The Federal Reserve building is pictured at its on Constitution Avenue address on December 22, 2018. As the partial government shutdown plodded into a fifth day, there was little sign of progress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The Federal Reserve building is pictured at its on Constitution Avenue address on December 22, 2018. As the partial government shutdown plodded into a fifth day, there was little sign of progress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A partial government shutdown entered its fifth day Wednesday with no end in sight as one key ingredient is missing on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue: Any sense of urgency to end the crisis.

President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders traded barbs — but few proposals that would fund nine Cabinet agencies and a handful of smaller federal offices — over the long Christmas weekend. And as Americans were celebrating the holiday with their families, the president only muddied the waters and dug in on his demand for $5 billion in border barrier funds.

“I can’t tell you when the government is going to re-open,” he told reporters on Tuesday, adding he will not sign any spending bill to end the crisis until “we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it.”

“I’ll call it whatever they want. But it’s all the same thing,” he said of Democrats’ preference to give him federal monies for border “fencing” rather than the concrete and steel wall on which he campaigned so hard in 2016. Senate Democratic leaders over the weekend rejected an offer by Vice President Mike Pence for $2.1 billion in barrier funding and $400 million for other border security tools — which his boss mocked in one Sunday tweet.

Since Schumer rejected the vice president’s Saturday offer, there has not been “any movement since then,” a Republican Senate source said Wednesday.

[Christmas Eve Tidings: Dems and Trump Trade Barbs, No Progress on Shutdown]

The House and Senate remain adjourned on a Christmas break; the Senate is planning to be back in session on Thursday, and the House has scheduled a pro forma session. But as of Wednesday morning, there were no signs of formal talks planned. Here are three things to watch as lawmakers get set to possibly head back to Washington in search of a shutdown-ending deal.

Sense of urgency?

With Congress out of session and many federal workers either furloughed or using vacation time over the holidays, what usually is a frenetic Wednesday morning commute was anything but. Two typically busy coffee shops near the White House were mostly empty around 8 a.m. On Capitol Hill, there was little stirring even as late at 11 a.m., with newspapers piled up outside the offices of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Majority Leader’s and Minority Whip’s offices, for instance.

If the president is itching to end the shutdown, he certainly is not sending such signals.

Asked on Christmas if he is willing to negotiate a lesser barrier funding amount than his $5 billion demand, Trump responded: “It’s complicated. … We want the wall money to be increased.” But increased from what? Pence offered Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the aforementioned $2.1 billion amount, which is less than Trump’s initial demand but more than the $1.3 billion for “fencing” that Schumer has advocated in recent days.

Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have not said much publicly other than a Christmas Eve statement criticizing the president. They appear content to allow the president to come to their position — but he has only returned to his hardline campaign-trail rhetoric in recent days. For instance, here is Trump in the Oval Office on Christmas: “It’s a barrier from people pouring into our country. … It’s a barrier from drugs. … They are bad people. We can’t do it without a barrier. We can’t do it without a wall.”

The White House was eerily quiet Wednesday morning. There were no presidential tweets bashing congressional Democrats or advocating for a wall or “steel slats” along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the West Wing was still — the lights remained off around 11 a.m. in the suite that houses the offices of Communications Director Bill Shine and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Presidential clarity

Just what does Trump want, and what might he be willing to accept? It remains anyone’s guess as federal workers on Wednesday signed their furlough notices and set up indefinite out-of-office email messages.

Sanders told Roll Call on Friday that her boss might be willing to accept a lesser amount, a stance supported by Pence’s offer. But Trump’s public comments and tweets — including a reference to “shutdown money,” which lit up social media but sowed new confusion — only added new murkiness to the talks.

Schumer and Pelosi admit they are plenty confused with how the president and his team are approaching the negotiations, a business skill he still boasts he has in spades.

[Trump Signals He’s Not Backing Down on the Border Wall]

“Different people from the same White House are saying different things about what the president would accept or not accept to end his Trump Shutdown, making it impossible to know where they stand at any given moment,” the Democrats said Monday. “The president wanted the shutdown, but he seems not to know how to get himself out of it.”

Political reality

Sources say Schumer is the lead Democrat at the table now, with Pelosi getting regular updates from him. But that will change dramatically next week if there is no deal before then. That’s because Minority Leader Pelosi is expected to again become Speaker Pelosi when Democrats take control of the House on January 3.

Democrats are confident they gain leverage with every second, as the clock ticks toward a new Congress with their first House majority since 2011. Senior White House officials seem to sense the same. See Pence’s offer. Also see White House Budget Director and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s from Sunday on ABC: “We’ve insisted on $5 billion [ in border barrier funds]. But [in] the discussions, now we’re between $1.6 billion and $1.5 billion.”

Former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum said Wednesday that Republicans and Democrats eventually will have to strike a deal to “buy each other off.”

“I guess the deal is what money do the Democrats want?” he asked rhetorically on CNN. 

But the former Pennsylvania senator underscored a point that will become even starker when divided government sets in next week: “The president has put himself in a position where he can’t really back down. He has to come home with something to improve our security at the southern border, and part of that has to a some kind of physical barrier.”

But if the president remains dug in and listening to immigration hardliners like he did during a Saturday lunch at the White House with conservative Republican lawmakers and officials, a deal with a Democratic-controlled House will be even harder to strike.

“As long as the president is guided by the House Freedom Caucus,” Pelosi and Schumer said of that conservative faction, “it’s hard to see how he can come up with a solution that can pass both the House and Senate and end his ‘Trump Shutdown.’”

Jason Dick contributed to this report. 

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