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The government shutdown: The war over messaging

There is no sign of either side buckling in negotiations to end the partial government shutdown now in its t...

Posted: Jan 8, 2019 2:01 PM
Updated: Jan 8, 2019 2:01 PM

There is no sign of either side buckling in negotiations to end the partial government shutdown now in its third week, which means for all intents and purposes, the battle has moved firmly -- and almost entirely -- to the war over messaging.

President Donald Trump will occupy the ultimate bully pulpit Tuesday night, in prime time, from the Oval Office. Democrats will respond and continue their push to chip away at Republican unity in the meantime. Beyond that, there's simply nothing in the form of actual negotiations going on right now.

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All eyes are on the President. Talks on Capitol Hill are frozen, and won't budge or even restart, until Trump makes his next move. "We're all just in wait-and-see mode at this point," was how one House Republican lawmaker put it Monday night.

What to watch Tuesday

Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Capitol Hill to meet behind closed doors with House Republicans at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Trump will give an address to the nation at 9 p.m. ET.

Democrats will receive time afterwards to respond, though they have not announced who will deliver the response.

What to read

The Trump administration is looking into declaring a federal emergency at the border, via CNN's Jim Acosta and Betsy Klein.

Tuesday's dual purpose

A large piece of Tuesday is unquestionably for the Trump administration to make its case to the country on why it's worth holding this fight -- and by extension, keeping 25% of the federal government shuttered. GOP congressional leaders, sources tell me, have been asking the administration to ramp up this kind of effort for the past few weeks. The administration has repeatedly stated there is a crisis on the border, and the pain of a shutdown is far exceeded by what's happening on the border now. They need to make that case in clear, factual terms, their allies on Capitol Hill said Monday.

But there's an inside game going on here, too -- and a crucial one. In the last few days, administration officials have been furiously working the phones with GOP lawmakers, trying to reassure them of their position and fight -- and ensure they don't waver.

A handful of GOP senators have already voiced concern over the direction things are going. A larger group of House Republicans may defect as House Democrats start moving through individual funding bills this week to reopen closed agencies.

"We have to shore up our guys," was how one senior House Republican aide put it. "They're antsy right now, and I think it's fair to say we'd all like more guidance about how this is going to play out."

The Trump administration's case

It's not subtle. If there's any question about what the Trump administration is pushing right now, take a look at the transcript released of an administration briefing for reporters on Monday. In that briefing, the word "crisis" was mentioned by Pence, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Deputy Office of Management Budget Director Russ Vought more than 30 times. In the transcript circulated to reporters, the word "crisis" is in ALL CAPS every time it appears.

This was Pence's final point in the briefing, and was one he'd made in some formulation throughout, according to the transcript: "So our position is there is a CRISIS at the southern border."

Where Democrats stand

Firm, according to several people involved in their strategy. House Democrats will start moving individual funding bills on Wednesday -- measures Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear won't move in his chamber without the President's signoff -- but nonetheless amp up pressure on GOP lawmakers still waiting for the administration to outline an off ramp to the fight.

Senate Democrats are actively considering blocking all legislation in the chamber until government funding bills are voted on.

Perhaps most notably, Democrats think the pressure play is having the desired effect -- and creating cracks in the GOP, which Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer alluded to in a statement Monday night:

"Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans in Congress have urged the President and Leader McConnell to end the Trump Shutdown and re-open the government while the Congress debates the President's expensive and ineffective wall. Unfortunately, President Trump keeps rejecting the bipartisan House-passed bills, which have already received strong bipartisan support in the Senate, to re-open the government."

While Democrats believe their strategy is working, aides say, Republicans have made clear they think Democrats are passing messaging bills and stalling. Looming over everything is the possibility the Trump administration could declare a national emergency as an end-run around Congress to find funding for wall construction.

Make no mistake

This shutdown ends when one side crumbles.

And that doesn't necessarily mean it's those at the top who blink. If the rank and file on either side start to go sideways, the intentions of the leaders can very well collapse quickly with them. That, more than anything else, is what congressional Republicans say the administration needs to keep a close eye on right now. It's why Pence and Nielsen will visit House Republicans Tuesday night and their Senate colleagues on Wednesday.

The emergency powers scenario

It's still unclear what route the administration would go if they choose to invoke emergency powers to attempt to start financing construction of portions of the wall. Should the President declare a national emergency, one option would be to halt military civil works projects and allow the administration to reprogram personnel and funds to construct authorized projects for national defense. Another would allow the Defense Department to begin construction on unauthorized projects using unused funds for previously allocated for military construction.

At this point, Republicans on Capitol Hill have not been informed that the President is going to utilize emergency powers.

But there is another possibility the administration is considering: using the "crisis" rhetoric and pitch to make the case for so-called emergency designation of funding for the border. This emergency designation would allow Congress to circumvent the current budget caps and funding allocations, giving the administration more leeway to spend money. The issue has been broached in talks in recent days, three sources say, including during the weekend negotiations with bipartisan congressional staff. In other words, the President would stop short of a full-on go-it-alone approach and instead make the case that Congress go outside the traditional funding process -- i.e. what's led to the shut down -- to find emergency funds for border security.

Should the president decide to go beyond that and explicitly attempt to invoke emergency powers, Democrats have already made clear any effort to do either of the above to finance and build a portion of the border wall would invite a legal challenge, but it's unclear what, exactly, the response would be until it becomes more clear which, if any, route the administration would choose. Suffice it to say it would be an aggressive escalation in a fight that has been stuck at a complete stalemate for weeks. A bigger question may be whether congressional Republicans would simply accept the move. Just take a look at what Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn told CNN's Manu Raju Monday:

"I'm confident he could declare a national emergency, but what that may mean in terms of adding new elements to this -- court hearings and litigation that may carry this on for weeks and months and years -- to me injecting a new element in this just makes it more complicated."

A key follow-up

How would declaring a national emergency bring the government closer to reopening? Would the White House and Republicans suddenly accept the bipartisan Senate-crafted funding measures -- which they've rejected up to this point? Aides I've spoken to are still very unclear what the end game would be in the emergency declaration scenario, if it does happen at all. According to multiple aides, there's a clear preference on the Republican side, at least behind the scenes at this point, that the administration not go that route, given how it could blow up the spending fight even further. At this point, there is simply no clarity as to which route the administration will go. With all of that in mind, no matter what happens on Tuesday, senior aides in both parties are still predicting the shutdown will last long past this weekend -- making it the longest government shut down in history.

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