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Just what have Pence, Democratic aides been discussing as shutdown plods on?

Sides bickered through weekend, do not plan to meet again

Vice President Mike Pence led talks between Trump administration officials over the weekend about a potential deal to reopen shuttered parts of the federal government amid a partial shutdown that started over two weeks ago. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Mike Pence led talks between Trump administration officials over the weekend about a potential deal to reopen shuttered parts of the federal government amid a partial shutdown that started over two weeks ago. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump keeps demanding more money for his southern border wall. Speaker Nancy Pelosi says Democrats will give him “nothing for the wall.” Neither side reported major progress during five hours of weekend talks about ending a partial government shutdown. So just what were Vice President Mike Pence and senior congressional aides even discussing?

Senior Democratic sources on Saturday evening, after talks lasted about two-and-a-half hours that day, said their representatives at the negotiations again rejected Trump’s demand for $5.6 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border barrier. A few hours later, the president — despite saying repeatedly recently he’s trying to give Democrats an out by calling the structure anything but a wall — posted a curious tweet.

[Trump predicts he’ll get $5.6B for border wall — even if it takes a national emergency]

Trump’s face is shown above the new “artistically designed steel slats” barrier he has described in recent days. And in a style patterned after the HBO television show “Game of Thrones,” these words are dominant: “THE WALL IS COMING.”

Wall or slats, Democrats simply aren’t buying it. They are, for now, holding firm in opposition. The stalemate is as ideological as it is about the best way to spend taxpayer funds. Democratic members call it “immoral.” The president contended Sunday “it’s about safety, it’s about security for our country, it’s about stopping human traffickers, it’s about stopping drugs.”

Trump will get another chance to make his case when he addresses the country at 9 p.m. Tuesday about border security and the partial government shutdown, two days before he will travel to the southern border.

The president’s Tuesday evening remarks will be in the Oval Office, White House Communications Director Bill Shine said Monday. It’s the first time he has held a prime-time address from the iconic room.

Sources on both sides confirmed there wasn’t much talk at all this weekend about just how much in wall funding Trump might accept — though the Trump administration increased its offer to $5.7 billion in a letter to lawmakers on Sunday.

But there was plenty to discuss. The negotiators opted instead to focus on other parts of any eventual deal, including a new administration request for $800 million, which officials claim is needed to house 52,000 immigrant detainees.

On Saturday, Democratic negotiators asked the administration to prepare formal documents used to explain funding requests for the things that the requested $800 million would finance — standard practice in Washington.

The White House claims it did so, but a Democratic source familiar with the Sunday session said that meeting started almost an hour late “because the White House did not have the information Democrats requested ready.” That same source said “Democratic staff did not receive a full budget justification today” for the new funds, including for the wall, that the White House is seeking.

A House GOP leadership aide said much of the Sunday meeting allowed Democratic staffers to “ask questions of [Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen] and hear DHS’s justification for the specific funding requests.”

The GOP aide claimed the Democrats got their requested justifications verbally, from Nielsen, and that her presentation “made it abundantly clear why it is necessary to have this level of funding to effectively secure our border.”

Trump posted a Sunday evening tweet saying Pence and other administration officials “had a productive meeting with the Schumer/Pelosi representatives today,” adding “Many details of Border Security were discussed.”

On the substance of the weekend talks, the two sides agree — though they disagree on the depth and effectiveness of those conversations, as well as any need to keep the Pence-chaired meetings going.

“No progress was made today,” the Democratic source said. “At this time, there is not another meeting of this group scheduled.”

[Democrats skeptical weekend talks will hold beyond next Trump tweet]

If the two sides can agree on a package of non-wall border security and migrant-detention items, talks then would turn to the biggest sticking point: Trump’s proposed wall.

Asked Monday if using steel rather than concrete would make a difference to Democrats, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley responded: “It doesn’t matter at all.”

“Some fencing is useful. Some barriers are useful,” Merkley conceded on CNN, before laying out other things Democrats would support, including: “surveillance technology” and “more personnel.”

“Let’s do the things that the experts say work right,” the Democratic senator said. But to that end, while the two sides might get the same briefings from experts, they hear very different messages.

Watch: What really happens during a government shutdown, explained

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