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White House looks to pick off Democrats to shake up shutdown stalemate, even as party remains united

Gridlocked about how to end the longest shutdown in US history, the White House is reaching out to rank-and-...

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 2:47 PM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 2:47 PM

Gridlocked about how to end the longest shutdown in US history, the White House is reaching out to rank-and-file moderate Democrats to try and peel off support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators has met to try and jumpstart even a semblance of talks on re-opening the government.

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Both of these efforts are, according to aides in both parties, ultimately going to be unsuccessful.

More importantly, they underscore that the respective leaders -- the key players in this now-25-day drama of nothingness -- are still not talking, and currently have no plans to do so.

Bottom line

There's nothing that happened Monday -- despite the incorporation of a new bipartisan Senate "gang," and the White House push to peel off House Democrats -- to move this closer to resolution. If anything, it was a demonstration of just how far apart things remain -- and likely will for weeks to come, aides involved say.

Just saying

It's 25 days in. Hundreds of thousands missed their paychecks last week. Active duty members of the US Coast Guard -- 40,000-plus of them -- miss their first paychecks Tuesday. Growing wait lines due to Transportation Security Administration absences are plaguing major airports. Congress has ground to a virtual halt.

This is the pain that's supposed to jar lawmakers back to the table to make a deal. And it's not happening. At least not yet.

What to watch

  • President Donald Trump has lunch with members of Congress at 12:30 p.m. ET.

  • Senate Leadership news conferences at 2 p.m. ET.

The new White House push

Trump and his team are deploying an age-old legislative strategy -- go after the most vulnerable members of the opposite party and try and pick them off. In this case, invitations were sent last night to a group of moderate House Democrats hailing from districts Trump won in 2016. This is the next play -- following last week's public messaging blitz -- to try and shake loose congressional Democrats who, to this point, have shown very little day light between one another.

The reality

None of these members have publicly broken with Democratic leadership and Democratic aides haven't picked up any sense behind the scenes that it could happen. Are members frustrated? Yes. Especially the new freshman class. But in the binary choice of side with the President or side with the party, the latter is still the prevailing choice, aides say. We'll see if that starts to shift as this drags on.

The new "gang"

More than 12 senators from both parties met in the Capitol basement hideaway office of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin -- all frustrated with the current state of play, all serious about finding a way out.

It didn't go well, according to multiple attendees.

So the new Senate "gang" is off to an inauspicious start, though lawmakers did agree to keep talking, senators said.

This is a key point to remember: Senate "gangs" don't have a great record of success -- but they get people talking and exchanging ideas, something that basically hasn't happened in weeks. Low bar? Yes. But as one person in the meeting put it: "People are talking, and that's better than the alternative."

More on senators not quite acclimating to gang life here thanks to CNN's intrepid Jeremy Herb and Caroline Kelly.

The biggest hurdles

The biggest hurdle is this diametrically opposed position: Democrats insist the government must be re-opened immediately for border security negotiations to really kick into gear. The President has rejected proposals that would do just that, both from Democrats and Republicans. That, obviously, would appear to be a significant hurdle.

The other, at least in the minds of Democratic senators to whom I've spoken, is they simply have no sense where the President stands on any given day -- something their Republican colleagues don't disagree with.

"It's short-term deal, it's long-term deal, it's $5 billion, it's $2 billion, it's $1.6 billion, it's DACA, it's no DACA," one Democratic senator told me Monday night, ticking through the somewhat head-spinning positions the White House and President have floated in the last three weeks. "It's just tough to keep up, let alone try to find negotiating space."

What's next for House Democrats

House Democrats have relentlessly passed bills to re-open all or parts of the shuttered federal agencies since they took control of the chamber, and that will continue this week.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey announced Monday the House would vote on two new short-term funding bills, one to February 1, another to February 28. The idea is to basically throw every possible option -- from full-year funding to individual funding bills to stopgap bills with varying end dates -- over to the Senate to try and force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand.

The GOP response in a nutshell

Asked if the new Democratic stop-gap bills would in any way tempt Senate Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas responded without hesitation: "No."

Reminder

McConnell's position remains unchanged: he will not bring anything to the Senate floor without the support of Trump, who has made explicitly clear he will not support re-opening the government before a deal on border wall funding is completed.

The Senate pulse

We've noted this a few times, but it's worth doing it again: McConnell isn't feeling pressured to buckle on the above point by his conference, according to several senators and senior aides. Yes, it's true senators are frustrated and most, in candid moments, would acknowledge being completely flummoxed by what the President would accept for a final deal. But they are largely behind McConnell -- and that shows no sign of changing any time soon.

It's worth noting with McConnell that he will be involved in this process when it comes to an end -- but has said repeatedly he views Democrats and Trump getting past their current brinksmanship as the central next step before he enters the fray.

Goes without saying

This position infuriates Democrats, who have said repeatedly, in just about every venue and platform possible, that McConnell should force the President's hand and bring the House proposals to the floor. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly gone after McConnell for what he says is abdicating his responsibility as majority leader, and Democratic senators who have met in the "gangs" have repeatedly urged their colleagues to press McConnell to do more.

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