‘Problem Solvers’ and problem pointer-outers: Minnesota’s Democrats embrace different approaches to trying to end the shutdown

President Donald Trump and Democrats are locked in a seemingly intractable standoff
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
President Donald Trump and Democrats are locked in a seemingly intractable standoff.

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.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Ilhan Omar
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.

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Betty McCollum
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.

Rep. Dean Phillips
MinnPost file photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Dean Phillips
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.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 01/18/2019 - 11:08 am.

    Democrats disagree. Get used to it. Independent thought is needed to get through this.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 01/19/2019 - 09:50 am.

      Not just Democrats!

      [Huffpost]
      “All nine representatives who represent border areas in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California oppose the wall, but Hurd is the only Republican. (Only two senators in all of those states — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — support the wall.)”

      Over 1,000 landowners would need to sell or lose in court to eminent domain to get this done.

      A “No-man’s land” will be created by any barrier that separates the ‘buildable’ land from the Rio Grande border.

      Texas border towns are among the safest in America.

      The amount of taxpayer resources wasted by a wall is staggering.

      Rep. Hurd (R) who has more border in his district than anyone else, says a better plan would be fiber optic cable all along the border.

      Republicans need to abandon this man and his delusional disruptive provocation of every friend or ally of the USA all for ego gratification and
      hubris.

      Militarizing the border is insane. It has no justification.

      (oh- btw- articles continue to call the military’s laying “barbed” wire. it is not “barbed wire” as used with livestock. It is RAZOR wire. Journalists should use the correct term for wire designed to cut you up, not simply prick you. No farmer would use RAZOR wire in a fence, as it would injure or kill animals caught in it.)

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/18/2019 - 12:58 pm.

    Well Republicans, if you hadn’t given all your power to the president for the last two years you might not look so bad, but you have tied your dreams to a conman. Now looking like a bunch of weaklings, that are politically inept, you are stuck with being responsible for shutting down the government. The president himself said the Republicans are responsible for the shutdown and proud of it. Welcome to Republican self-inflicted wound 3,956. It is another case of Republicans doing what they do best , messing with people’s lives. It is time to stop the nonsense and do the bipartisan work you were elected to do.

  3. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 01/18/2019 - 07:45 pm.

    There is, perhaps, a light at the end of the tunnel: by the end of February, SNAP payments will stop being issued. I’ve read that they will gradually be reduced until then. Not only will that be a resounding catastrophe for the millions of families on SNAP, but for the farmers and corporations for whom SNAP is huge government subsidy. Federal spending accounts for some 25% of GDP. The shutdown has only begun to affect the economy, but in about 5 weeks we’ll be running into a brick wall. Never mind the air traffic controllers, border security and other workers who will have no choice but to look for another job. And why would they come back when the government reopens – when they might have to go through this again next year, and the year after that? When unemployment in the private sector is so low? Good luck recruiting and retaining qualified federal workers for the next few years, if not decades. The average shutdown costs many millions of dollars – if this lasts until March 1st, it seems likely the costs will run into the billions. All for… what, exactly?

    I’d like to say that I would think the president and congressional leaders would feel compelled to end the shutdown by then. It’s entirely possible that the collapse of the American government, economy, and popular electoral support are not good enough reasons for our leaders to make some commonsense compromises. I think we’re about to reap the whirlwind, folks.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/21/2019 - 11:38 pm.

    Once the President gives the Democrats the spending, he will have no leverage and thus no wall. If the Democrats won’t give a tiny part of the money necessary for a wall during a shutdown, who in their right mind thinks that they will give the money later (in exchange for even more requests). A wall by itself is not the answer, but keeping thousands of government workers idled or unpaid over $5 billion dollars is not a stance that I would be proud to own. The Federal government wastes that much money daily I am guessing since there is a $20 trillion debt with crummy infrastructure and a couple of wars to show for it.

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