Updated 9:17 a.m. ET
President Trump and the two top congressional Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, meet at the White House on Tuesday, with less than two weeks until a temporary government funding measure runs out.
Even with the risk of a partial government shutdown bumping up against Christmas, White House attention has largely been elsewhere, and Democratic leaders are making it clear they don’t intend to give the president a victory on funding for his signature border wall.
“Republicans still control the House, the Senate, and the White House, and they have the power to keep government open,” Senate Minority Leader Schumer and House Minority Leader Pelosi said in a joint statement on the eve of the meeting with Trump. “This holiday season, the president knows full well that his wall proposal does not have the votes to pass the House and Senate, and should not be an obstacle to a bipartisan agreement.”
Democratic resistance to funding the wall may have prompted President Trump’s pre-meeting tweetstorm, which over a series of five long tweets seemed to simultaneously concede defeat and declare victory on wall funding. Trump suggested that much of the wall has already been built (numerous fact checkers earlier this year determined it hasn’t) and that the military can build the rest.
Troops have been stationed along the border since just before the midterm elections, and while some are being extended through the end of January, other units have been sent home.
“He’s talking about reprogramming/transferring funds from other [Department of Defense] programs,” said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert when asked if he could explain the Trump tweets. “That would indeed take away resources from other activities.”
Collender said he wasn’t sure how much discretion Trump would actually have to do this and said it will “get the new Democratic House very angry.”
Even before the morning tweetstorm, in recent days, Trump had been far less specific about his demands for border-wall funding than he has been in past rounds of budget talks. Sometimes he leaves out specific dollar amounts (though the standing ask is $5 billion). And his use of the phrase “border security” indicates more than just funding to build the wall.
“Congress must fully fund border security in the year-ending funding bill,” Trump said Friday in a speech at a law enforcement conference. “We have to — we have to get this done. They’re playing games. They’re playing political games. I actually think the politics of what they’re doing is very bad for them, but we’re going to very soon find out. Maybe I’m not right, but usually I’m right.”
Asked via email about White House expectations for the meeting, press secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t respond. But the days of high expectations for White House summits leading to bipartisan breakthroughs seem to have passed.
Democrats, looking at public opinion, may feel they have some leverage in the talks. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out Tuesday shows that 57 percent of Americans, including 63 percent of independents, want the president to compromise on the border wall to prevent gridlock and not risk a government shutdown. Two-thirds of Republicans, however, want the president to stand his ground.
A history of failed meetings with “Chuck and Nancy”
A little more than a year ago, Trump had a couple of meetings with Schumer and Pelosi. He said he’d worked out a deal on immigration with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he called them.
“I think something can happen,” Trump told reporters. “We’ll see what happens. But something will happen.”
The deal blew up without even an agreement on what the deal was. Looking beyond the short-term budget fight to the year ahead, both Trump and Pelosi, who is expected to once again become speaker when Democrats take control of the House, have talked about the potential for bipartisan compromise.
“Nancy Pelosi and I can work together and get a lot of things done,” Trump said at his post-midterm elections news conference.
Pelosi, at her own news conference the same day, noted, “We hope that we can work in a bipartisan way in that way.”
Can Trump work with a Democratic House next year?
Both leaders see opportunity in potential infrastructure and prescription-drug pricing legislation. But it’s not all rainbows, and they’re far from any deals.
Pelosi and Democrats are also talking about robust investigations of Trump and his administration — and Trump has said that would lead to a “warlike posture.”
“Then at the end of two years, nothing is done,” Trump predicted. “Now what’s bad for them is being in the majority, I’m just going to blame them.”
This leaves many questions — are Democrats willing or able to compromise with Trump? Is Trump willing to deal? If he is, will congressional Republicans go along? And, given the way Trump has changed his mind in the midst of past negotiations, will anyone trust him?
Still, allies of the president and Pelosi interviewed for this story say some limited compromise is possible.
“I think there’s several positions the president has that frankly line up more traditionally with Democrats,” said Marc Short, former director of legislative affairs for the Trump administration. “The question I think that is yet to be determined is whether or not Democrats will give their leadership the flexibility to negotiate with the president.”
That’s one way of pinning blame back on the other party when big things fail to get done. Short also questioned whether Democrats would be willing to give Trump a win, as he begins his re-election campaign in earnest.
John Lawrence, a former chief of staff to Pelosi, countered that Democrats are likely open and looking to cut some deals.
“[Pelosi] is going to be, and I think Democrats in the House are going to be, concerned with proving that they can be trusted that they can govern,” Lawrence said, “and if that involves having to make deals with Sen. McConnell or President Trump, then I think they will do that because that is what they’ve been hired to do.”
Short and Lawrence both see incentives for their respective parties to get something done, while questioning whether those incentives exist for the other side.