Constrained by base politics, Trump and Congress clash on plan to end the shutdown

    President Donald Trump speaks about the partial government shutdown, immigration and border security in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    Thirty-one days in and billions of dollars in economic costs later, Washington still appears to be a long way from ending the partial government shutdown prompted by a fight over funding for a border wall.

    Over the weekend, President Donald Trump proposed a plan to end the shutdown which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to bring to the floor for a vote Tuesday. The White House is attempting to sell the plan to Congress as a "good-faith compromise." But even before the president presented his offer in a White House speech, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi panned it as a "non-starter." As of Monday afternoon, there were few if any Democrats in the House or Senate who said they would back the president's plan.

    In a statement released Saturday, Pelosi argued that the president had compiled "several previously rejected initiatives" into an unacceptable proposal. "It is unlikely that any one of these provisions alone would pass the House, and taken together, they are a non-starter," Pelosi said.

    The president's offer contains nearly $9.5 billion in humanitarian aid and border security, including $5.7 billion for the wall, in exchange for short-term protection for Dreamers and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

    In 2017, Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected Dreamers, immigrants brought to the U.S. when they were very young, from deportation. Last year, Trump canceled protections for more than 300,000 TPS recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. In both cases, Trump's actions were challenged in court and both immigrant populations continue to face uncertainty about their future in the United States.

    The plan to extend DACA and TPS for three years was part of a bipartisan Senate bill introduced last year, the BRIDGE Act. Over the weekend, the main Democratic sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, rejected Trump's offer to incorporate BRIDGE Act provisions in his deal to end the government shutdown. "I cannot support the proposed offer as reported and do not believe it can pass the Senate," Durbin wrote in a statement.

    Trump's plan also contains:

    • $5.7 billion to construct roughly 230 miles of steel barriers in high priority areas along the southern border, plus access roads and technology.
    • $675 million for drug detection inspection technology at ports of entry
    • $130 million for canine units, training, personnel and portable scanners to detect narcotics, weapons and other illicit contraband.
    • $800 million in humanitarian assistance, medical support and new temporary housing.
    • $782 million to hire an additional 2,750 border agents, law enforcement officers and staff.
    • $563 million to hire 75 new immigration judge teams to reduce the backlog of immigration court cases.

    According to Trump, the offer would create a program to allow Central American migrant children to apply for asylum in their home countries, rather than making the dangerous trip north. President Barack Obama started a similar initiative in 2014, the Central American Minors Program, which allowed in-country refugee applications. The program was rescinded early in the Trump administration.

    Trump also pledged to take steps to "promote family reunification" without providing additional details. Thousands of children were separated from their families after Trump enacted a "zero tolerance" policy at the border. The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officially estimated there were 2,737 children taken away from their parents into U.S. government custody. According to a government report released last week, the exact number is unknown and the number of families separated is likely in the thousands.

    Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued the president's proposal was akin to "hostage taking," in a statement Saturday. "It was the president who single-handedly took away DACA and TPS protections in the first place. Offering some of those protections that he took away back in exchange for the wall is not compromise but hostage taking," he said. Schumer said he believes the Democrats have the votes to defeat the president's proposal when McConnell brings it for a vote this week.

    Vice President Mike Pence argued that the president had "embraced" Democratic priorities, including the BRIDGE Act, humanitarian relief and additional funding for technology and personnel at the border. "What this is, is a good faith effort to address the issue," Pence said on Fox News Sunday. "The president has made it clear what he would support. Now it's time for the Senate and the House to start voting to secure our border and reopen the government."

    While neither side appears to have moved much toward reopening the government, Trump's latest offer has opened up a larger debate about immigration and border security priorities that have more bipartisan appeal than the border wall.

    "There are a lot of pieces on the table now that the sides could work with and try to reach a compromise," said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "We're certainly further along than we were a week ago when the conversation was just about a wall."

    By limiting the debate to the border wall, both sides "boxed themselves in" and made promises to their political bases that were hard to deliver. "What the president did in his speech, to his credit, was broaden the discussion," Selee said, acknowledging the issue of a border wall has become more of a symbol than an actual policy. "Now the question becomes, can either side budge? Are they able to mix and match measures to reach a compromise?"

    Politically, neither Trump or the Democrats have much incentive to give in to the others demands, even where there are areas of agreement. The partial government shutdown created leverage for both sides to push their immigration and border security priorities. As soon as the government reopens, that leverage disappears, particularly for President Trump.

    Democrats in the House have passed separate appropriations bills for every government agency currently shuddered under the partial government shutdown and said they are willing to extend funding for the Department of Homeland Security for about four weeks while they work out an agreement on border security. The Senate overwhelmingly voted to a similar proposal in December but the White House rejected it.

    It is now a question of who blinks first, said Tho Bishop, a political scientist at the libertarian Mises Institute. "Within the beltway, it's a test of wills to see which side bends the knee the first in the first battle of divided government. For America as a whole, it's an active front in the larger culture war between red and blue America," he said. "No side wants to take a loss as we begin to gear up for 2020."

    Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii both rejected the president's proposal to reopen the government over the weekend. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who announced her White House bid Monday morning, has taken a hard position against the wall referring to it as Trump's "vanity project."

    In a fiery speech Monday, Massachusetts Senator and 2020 Democratic contender Elizabeth Warren, denounced Trump's border wall as "a monument to hate and division" and has refused to fund it.

    Acknowledging the 2020 elections were at stake, Trump took to Twitter to accuse Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats of partisan gamesmanship. "They don’t see crime & drugs, they only see 2020 - which they are not going to win," Trump tweeted Saturday. On Monday, he faulted Democrats for rebuffing his latest offer, tweeting, "Democrats campaigned on working within Washington and 'getting things done!' How is that working out? #2020TAKEBACKTHEHOUSE."

    In addition to his political opponents on the left, Trump has also taken heat from his most conservative supporters. When it appeared Trump may give some ground in negotiations with Democrats last week, conservative pundit Anne Coulter lashed out saying Trump's presidency would be a "joke" if he didn't fulfill his campaign promise to build the wall. "It is self-preservation," she told HBO's Vice News, "because he is dead in the water if he does not build that wall. Dead, dead, dead."

    Two immigration groups that typically support Trump's tough border policy blasted the latest proposal as "surrender" and "amnesty" for people in the country illegally.

    Equating Trump's extension of DACA and TPS to "amnesty," the Federation for American Immigration Reform issued a statement that "talk of an amnesty – or an extension of amnesty – will only exacerbate the current humanitarian and public safety crisis on the border and result in more, not less, illegal immigration."

    Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, wrote, "Hearing rumors that the shutdown deal being pushed by Pence and Kushner would trade Bridge Act (enforcement crippling amnesty) for $5 billion for wall. Embarrassing surrender for the President and bad deal."

    Trump responded to his critics on the right tweeting, "No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer." Teasing, or perhaps threatening a debate over comprehensive immigration reform, he added, "Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else. Likewise there will be no big push to remove the 11,000,000 plus people who are here illegally-but be careful Nancy!"

    Jacob Monty is a career immigration attorney who served on Trump's National Hispanic Advisory Council and quit before the election after then-candidate Trump took a hard line against legal immigration. He is hopeful that Trump could preside over a breakthrough in the immigration debate, but warned that Trump is listening too much to right-wing pundits and White House immigration hardliner Stephen Miller.

    "As ironic as it sounds, I do think Trump could be the person who presides over the biggest immigration reform we’ve had since Reagan," he said. "If the president were really acting from his own heart I think he would offer a more generous package and he would say some positive things about immigrants. But it seems Stephen Miller, his domestic policy adviser, is calling the shots on immigration, not him."

    Miller is largely held responsible for changing President Trump's mind last year when he was prepared to offer a path to citizenship for some 1.8 million DACA recipients and Dreamers in exchange for full funding of his $25 billion border wall funding. Democrats, then in the minority in the House and Senate, appeared interested in making that deal until the White House adjusted to terms to include sharp reductions in legal immigration, cracking down on sanctuary cities and standards for claiming asylum.

    By advocating polarizing policies, Trump is missing an opportunity to reach across the aisle and potentially fix America's broken immigration system. "As a Republican who cares about this, it's sad that he has surrendered the immigration issue totally to the Democrats," Monty said, noting the absence of compassion in Trump's Saturday address. "He still appears to be playing to his base."

    It is not yet clear how each side of the shutdown fight will be impacted in the long term. Republican Senators who face a difficult election map in 2020 are reportedly pressuring the White House to reopen the government and then negotiate border security and immigration. According to polls, the majority of American voters blame Trump for the shutdown, including his supporters.

    A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, conducted last week shows Trump's approval rating had dropped seven points since December. On average, Trump's approval rating stands at 40 percent.


    This story was updated to correct the name of the in-country asylum program started under President Obama.

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