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Shutdown showdown: Democrats press to reopen government as Trump heads to border

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, listens during a news conference on Jan. 2, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Al Drago
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, listens during a news conference on Jan. 2, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

WASHINGTON — Democrats sought unsuccessfully Thursday to pass bills to reopen shuttered government agencies as President Donald Trump headed to the U.S.-Mexico border in a bid to gain leverage in a stalemate over funding his long-promised border wall.

With a partial government shutdown now nearly three weeks old, Trump has an afternoon event planned at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, and will then head to the Rio Grande for a briefing, according to guidance provided by the White House.

Before leaving the White House, Trump said if he can’t cut a deal with Congress, he “probably” will declare a national emergency and direct the military to build a wall without congressional consent.

By mid-Thursday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence, who was on Capitol Hill to meet with Republican senators, ruled out any agreement that involved protections for “dreamers” brought to the country illegally as children.

“When we get the resources that we need to build a wall and secure our border, this is a president that also wants to ... fix our broken immigration system. We believe the opportunity after the Supreme Court case will be the time to do that,” Pence said, referring to the high court’s expected ruling on the DACA program.

Deal-minded Senate Republicans had been shuttling between meetings with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Pence on Thursday morning. They batted around a proposal that would include Trump’s desired $5.7 billion in wall funding; a renewable, three-year status for DACA recipients and beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status program; and other matters, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.

“I think there is some good discussion going on, and we’re looking for options and alternatives, and that’s an important part of the process right now,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said early Thursday afternoon.

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But the GOP senators were much more interested in hashing out a process agreement that could pave the way forward for a potential deal to end the shutdown, the people said. That would include holding congressional hearings on immigration — most likely in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., — and potentially having Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testify. Under the process idea, the Senate would put forward the president’s immigration funding request for a committee and ultimately a floor vote, with the understanding that Trump’s plan would be subject to amendments.

Graham essentially said late Thursday afternoon that talks were over and that he saw “no way forward.”

“I have never been more depressed about moving forward than right now. I just don’t see a pathway forward,” Graham said.

Earlier Thursday, McConnell rebuffed efforts by Democrats on Thursday to pass spending bills that would reopen shuttered government agencies, including several that had nothing to do with border security.

After Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., sought consent to move forward with a bill, McConnell objected, calling the Democratic strategy “pointless, absolutely pointless.”

“This will not produce a result,” McConnell said. “It won’t solve the problem because the president has made clear he won’t sign them.”

Speaking on the floor, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., unsuccessfully pleaded with McConnell to take up the legislation.

“Let’s separate our disagreements over border security from the government shutdown, reopen all the government agencies unrelated to border security, and let’s continue to work to resolve our differences,” Schumer said. “Do not hold all of these workers as hostages, as pawns, as leverage.”

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Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., warned his Republican colleagues of the consequences of not acting by Friday.

“I will tell you your phones will all be ringing off the hook tomorrow when federal employees miss that first paycheck,” Van Hollen said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she thinks Trump “loves the distraction” that the partial government shutdown has created.

“I think he loves the distraction that this is from his other problems,” Pelosi said during a news conference in which she continued to insist that Trump’s demand for wall funding “is not the best way to protect our borders.”

Pelosi also questioned whether Trump is truly confident that a border wall makes sense.

“If you have confidence in your own position, why do you say, ‘I have to shut down government to get people to heed what I’m saying?’”

“I don’t even know if the president wants the wall. I think he just wants the debate on the wall,” she added.

Pelosi said the House would continue to vote on bills to reopen shuttered agencies even though Republican leaders in the Senate have said they won’t take them up since Trump won’t sign them.

Trump said Thursday that he is scrapping his plans to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this month because of the partial government shutdown. He made the announcement via Twitter as Air Force One was still en route to Texas. It was not immediately clear if other members of the Trump administration still plan to attend.

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“Because of the Democrats intransigence on Border Security and the great importance of Safety for our Nation, I am respectfully canceling my very important trip to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum,” Trump wrote. “My warmest regards and apologies to the @WEF!”

At the U.S. Border Patrol station in Texas, where he attended a roundtable on immigration and border security, Trump continued to press the case for his border wall, which he maintained would be paid for by Mexico “many, many times over” through a new trade deal that has yet to be ratified by Congress.

“I didn’t mean, ‘Please write me a check,’” Trump said of his oft-made claim that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Even if approved by Congress, the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal would not necessarily contribute more money to federal coffers, as countries do not “lose” money on trade deficits.

Trump also blamed Democrats for the continued partial government shutdown, pushing back against their criticism that the situation at the border was a crisis “manufactured” by the White House.

“It’s not. What is manufactured is the use of the word ‘manufactured,’” Trump said.

Air Force One landed in McAllen early Thursday afternoon. Trump was accompanied on the flight from Washington by Texas’ two Republican U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

Also traveling with Trump on Thursday were several senior White House staffers, as well as the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.

Trump was greeted by several state officials, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican.

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Trump then climbed into his SUV but quickly stepped out to greet a crowd of supporters on the tarmac positioned behind bike racks.

The president autographed Trump caps, shook hands and posed for pictures. He said, repeatedly, “Thank you very much, everybody!” Some supporters could be heard yelling, “Thank you for supporting our border patrol” and “Keep it up!”

Ahead of the president’s visit to Texas, furloughed federal workers, contractors and union representatives were marching toward the White House Thursday to demand an end to the shutdown, while both pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators lined the streets in McAllen, Texas, in advance of the president’s arrival.

According to local television reports, Trump supporters and protesters in McAllen numbered in the hundreds. A historic theater in McAllen posted a sign drawing attention to the city’s ranking as one of the country’s safest places to live.

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The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis, Aaron Gregg, Philip Rucker and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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