On the 26th day of the ongoing government shutdown — the longest such closure in history — Rep. Dean Phillips decided to try something novel: talk to the president of the United States.
The freshman Democrat from Minnesota’s 3rd District traveled to the White House with a dozen lawmakers from both parties, who are part of the centrist “Problem Solvers Caucus,” in hopes of ending the shutdown.
As Phillips met with Donald Trump, his freshman colleague in the Minnesota delegation, Rep. Ilhan Omar, joined a dozen progressive lawmakers to try a different tactic: marching to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in the Capitol to demand he move on appropriations bills, passed by the U.S. House, to reopen the government.
It’s not exactly common to see brand-new House members meeting directly with the president to negotiate over a crisis, or storming into the Majority Leader’s office to remind him he “works for the American people,” not the president. But this is an unusual moment in Washington, and this is an unusual government shutdown.
President Trump and Democrats are locked in a seemingly intractable standoff, with the president unwilling to open the government without $5.7 billion in funding for his border wall with Mexico, and Democrats in agreement that this demand is a non-starter.
In the meantime, the shutdown has had a profound effect on life for many people: communities that rely on federal support have been hit hard, of course, but breakdowns in airport screening, food safety inspections and processing of tax paperwork have extended the inconvenience and hassle to millions of people nationwide.
Those dire circumstances are prompting Democrats to get creative about strategies to break the impasse — or at least win the war of public opinion — whether that means trying to work with a president who Speaker Nancy Pelosi said was more interested in “soap operas” than talks, or direct action in the GOP Senate leader’s office.
Though there’s distance between Phillips’ and Omar’s approaches toward the shutdown standoff, Democrats are mostly staying in lockstep on the fundamentals of the shutdown — opposing the wall, and placing the blame on the president for the pain the debacle has caused.
Talks, or tantrums?
When Phillips and members of the Problem Solvers Caucus filed into the White House Situation Room for a meeting with Trump on Wednesday morning, it represented what was likely the first face-to-face session between Trump and Democrats since a bitter January 9 meeting, during which Democrats claimed the president stormed out of the meeting and Republicans claimed that Democrats “embarrassed themselves.”
Largely convinced the president was not negotiating in good faith, Democrats shunned Trump’s later invitations, wary of becoming political props. Conservative media outlets had taken to focusing on individual Democrats who expressed a willingness to talk to Trump as proof that the party was divided and that Pelosi was restricting her more “reasonable” members from coming to the table.
Earlier in the week, the White House invited five centrist Democratic House members to talk with the president, and none of them accepted. In response to that news, Omar tweeted, “Proud of my colleagues for standing strong… We need real negotiations, not stunts designed to undermine Democratic leadership.”
Phillips told MinnPost he went to the White House in hopes of finding a “reset” button for the stalemate. He said the goal of the group, which consisted of six Democratic and six Republican lawmakers, was to persuade the president to reopen the government first, and then launch into a substantive legislative effort on border security and immigration after.
The congressman declined to offer specifics about what was said at the meeting, and he did not say whether he is in favor of appropriating money for a border wall — clearly a hard line for the president — as part of a border security compromise he was calling for. He did say, however, that he was hopeful the meeting “may have moved the needle ever so slightly to inspire the opening of negotiations.”
“Democrats and Republicans are like-minded on enhanced border security and immigration reform,” Phillips said. “To accomplish that, it can’t be done while being held hostage. Hoping to inspire the administration to reopen government so that can be achieved — that was our charge today.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump’s meeting with the Problem Solvers was constructive. “They listened to one another and now both have a good understanding of what the other wants,” she said. “We look forward to more conversations like this.”
The meeting Phillips took part in was not denounced as a ploy by Democrats like Omar who cheered when other Democrats didn’t take the White House’s invite earlier in the week.
“I certainly support having conversations,” Omar told MinnPost when asked about the Problem Solvers’ meeting with Trump. “It is really important for us to continue to have dialogue so that we can get to a solution that reopens our government.”
But the 5th District congresswoman cast doubt on whether negotiating with the president was a good use of time. “I have three kids,” she said. “Oftentimes, I know when one of them is about to throw a tantrum so they can get their way. At this moment, what we are watching is a president that’s throwing a tantrum just like one of my kids.”
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that and not play into that,” she said.
Activists from the party’s left flank agree: Heidi Hess, co-director of CREDO Action, a progressive organizing group, said Democrats meeting with Trump legitimizes and normalizes his request for a border wall, which she called racist. (Pelosi has called the wall an “immorality.”)
“Morally, it doesn’t seem like the time to compromise,” Hess said. “The idea that Democrats would feel more afraid of the way Trump is going to spin them than their actions — there’s a big gap in the leadership we need.”
Putting pressure on McConnell
For a wide range of Democrats, the man worth targeting with pressure on the shutdown is not Donald Trump: it’s Mitch McConnell. In addition to marching into his office, progressive stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have made the majority leader the focus this week with a well-publicized “search” for McConnell around the Senate.
Since the shutdown began, the Democratic majority in the House has sent to the Senate several bills that would reopen the government, including full appropriations for agencies affected by the shutdown and a “continuing resolution” that would open the government until February 8.
McConnell has made clear that he will not advance any spending bill on the Senate floor unless Trump would sign it. While Democrats believe some Senate Republicans would cross the aisle and vote with the Democratic minority to reopen the government, there are almost certainly not enough votes to overcome an expected veto from Trump.
“The solution to the problem is for the president of the United States, the only person of the 330 million or so of us who can sign something into law, reaches an agreement with the Democratic majority in the House and enough Democrats in the Senate,” McConnell said on Tuesday. Having “show votes,” he said, “doesn’t solve the problem.”
At an event spotlighting her legislation to provide back pay to federal contract workers affected by the shutdown, Sen. Tina Smith countered that McConnell has the power to end the shutdown now — if he brought the bills forward, she claimed, they would pass.
“The Constitution doesn’t say that the Senate should only vote on bills the president already said he’d support,” Smith said. “We should do our job.”
Asked whether direct negotiation with Trump was a good idea, Smith said she’d never say it was a waste of time to talk. “But the problem is to turn talk into action, and it’s frustrating when the many overtures we’ve made to the president face a constantly moving goalpost,” she said. “That’s why the Senate needs to take action.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, a top member of the House Appropriations Committee, said it “depends on Mitch McConnell” whether the shutdown ends or not, and predicted that House and Senate Republicans would vote to reopen government if McConnell moved forward. “Once the government is open, perhaps Congress can come up with a robust proposal and put that in front of the president and he can vote yea or nay for border security,” she said.
Some Republicans have publicly backed that route: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, had spent the week trying to convince his colleagues to reopen the government with commitments to the president that they’d take up border security once the shutdown ended. “I believe that a three-week small CR [continuing resolution] would produce results,” he said on Tuesday. “We’re not going to get results with the government shut down.”
The recent track record for that strategy is not good: a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, ended a January 2018 shutdown over the status of the young, undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers by securing promises from McConnell for votes on immigration bills when the government reopened. None of those bills ultimately passed.
In that instance, however, Democrats were less unified, with some lawmakers looking for a way out of a shutdown over DACA that the public seemed to blame them for. Now, with public opinion largely on their side in the current shutdown, Democratic lawmakers are unanimously behind the argument that the current stalemate is Trump’s fault, and that congressional Republicans need to get him out of it.
Phillips was clear that the shutdown won’t end unless Trump reopens the government and accedes to a border security discussion after. But the congressman did say that he, and the other lawmakers in the Problem Solvers Caucus, are “tired of the he-said-she-said, of the woeful lack of good governance.”
“I can’t opine on which way this might go, or who’s trustworthy or not,” he said. “Time will tell.”