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House Democrats are getting radio silence from Trump’s White House

The lack of White House communication is killing hopes of bipartisan ideas on infrastructure and drug pricing.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi while joined by Vice President Mike Pence before delivering the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building.
Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Lines of communication between the White House and congressional Democrats are almost nonexistent, House members and aides told Vox, foreshadowing potential paralysis on major issues that theoretically have bipartisan support — infrastructure and lowering prescription drug costs.

This comes as Congress has finally reached a spending deal to fund the government through September, though it remains to be seen if Trump will sign it.

When asked how much White House outreach there has been to House Democrats, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, “Hmmmm...let me count the ways. Zero.” Bustos was part of past infrastructure talks at the White House last year, but said she’s not aware of any current conversations.

Democrats are eager to put the paralysis of government shutdowns and constant short-term spending bills behind them, and get to work on other business. But as they hope to turn to infrastructure and prescription drugs, communication is at a bare minimum, and suggests such work could be difficult.

There have been “minor conversations” around lowering prescription drugs costs, but no conversations between the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s team on infrastructure, Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill told Vox recently. A spokesperson for the White House did not comment for this story.

When it comes to an infrastructure plan, there are some talks happening at the committee level, but the White House has still not hired a person to replace the top infrastructure official who left in April 2018.

“It’s not clear who is the lead at the moment. They don’t have a designated transportation person,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR). DeFazio told Vox he’s had two meetings with White House staff this month, but he doesn’t think the White House has a clear infrastructure plan at this point.

Some fear the lack of communication is an after-effect of the explosive shutdown negotiations between Trump and congressional Democrats. After a January meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that ended with Trump storming out, the White House simply stopped inviting Democratic leadership to negotiations.

“There’s tremendous and quite unusual attitude on the other side, there’s a lot of anger, and they’re slipping extremely far left,” Trump said at a Tuesday cabinet meeting, adding, “We’re working very hard with the other side and hopefully positive things can take place.”

Trump tried to freeze Pelosi and Schumer out during the government shutdown

Trump regularly talks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but now does not extend the same courtesy to Democratic leaders. In fact, Democrats look to signals from McConnell as to whether Trump will support things like the current government spending and border security deal. The president has been completely out of the latest negotiations between Senate Republicans and House Democrats.

Democrats’ only clue as to whether Trump will sign the bill comes from McConnell.

“I do know Sen. McConnell thinks he can pass it through the Senate, that would indicate he has some degree of confidence,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “Of course, he had some degree of confidence before, which proved to be not reliable.”

House Democrats always knew they weren’t going to have a smooth relationship with Trump, who is bristling at the fact he is the subject of their investigations. But there had been a sliver of hope they could work with Trump on infrastructure, in particular.

That was before House Democrats began their new session in the middle of a 35-day government shutdown, the longest in America’s history.

Trump had to negotiate with Democrats to end the shutdown, but he did not like being told ‘no’ by Pelosi. Eventually, Trump stopped inviting Pelosi and Schumer to meetings, extending invitations to moderate Democrats instead of leadership. Aides at the time were completely baffled, wondering if Trump thought he could negotiate his way out of a shutdown with someone other than Pelosi.

“Nothing can happen without leadership,” one Democratic aide told Vox last month. “They need to agree on this.”

Where policymaking is concerned, it’s a problem when the president won’t communicate with Congressional leaders of the opposite party — especially when that party holds power in one branch. Staff-level talks may happen, but ultimately Trump is the person who has to decide if he will work with House Democrats or oppose them.

Democrats are still holding out hope that “infrastructure week” might happen

Democrats talked a lot about lowering drug costs and rebuilding America’s infrastructure on the campaign trail in 2018. But the fact is, they need Trump’s cooperation to do it.

DeFazio, the chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hopes the White House is open to coming up with an alternative to the plan they released in February 2018, which garnered little support among House Republicans and Democrats alike.

That plan invested just $200 billion of federal money into the nation’s infrastructure, expecting the rest to be made up by state and local officials. Rather than a federal match of local and state money, the Trump infrastructure plan reversed it. Trump’s former top infrastructure official, DJ Gribbin, told Vox it was a more sensible reallocation of federal dollars. Gribbin left the administration in April 2018, just two months after his plan was released.

“There seems to be a little bit of a myth that federal funds don’t come at a cost to states and localities,” Gribbin said. “We were very aggressively pursuing a bipartisan strategy.”

Trump called on Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill in his State of the Union. But whether the administration actually communicates their plans to Democrats is another matter entirely. Bustos was part of a small bipartisan group of legislators who met with Gribbin and other officials at the White House last year. She remembered good dialogue that then dropped off completely, before the White House released a plan that neither House Republicans nor Democrats supported.

“I thought it was a good conversation, good listening was going on,” she said. “And then kind of silence after that.”

DeFazio, who recalled meeting with Gribbin over beers when he was still Trump’s advisor, panned the administration’s 2018 proposal as not serious.

“DJ Gribbin wrote up a thought paper which said we will cut $200 billion from other parts of transportation, we’ll put it over here in a special new pot,” DeFazio said. “It was a nonstarter from the beginning, I’m not aware of a single Republican legislator who supported that proposal.”

DeFazio admits the White House officials he’s talking to “don’t have a plan, but they’re talking about things that are very different than what DJ Gribbin proposed.”

Democrats are similarly feeling negative about lowering prescription drugs, believing the administrations priorities don’t line up with their own and are too easy on big pharma. There’s no indication the two sides are working together on a plan, but Pelosi’s team is trying to hold Trump’s feet to the fire.

“We think there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to work together to deliver strong prescription drug price negotiation legislation and a bold infrastructure bill,” said Pelosi spokesman Henry Connelly.

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