On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of legislators with no real leadership positions crossed the aisle to discuss what their leaders wouldn’t.
It might not surprise you that they didn’t get very far.
The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus met in the White House Situation Room with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Cabinet members to talk about border security and ending the partial government shutdown, now in its 26th day. But whether this activity results in a breakthrough in negotiations is looking unlikely.
The White House did not invite Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. As of Wednesday afternoon, there are no meetings on the books, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed. Instead, they invited the Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of House Democrats and Republicans who focus on issues including immigration reform, stabilizing the Affordable Care Act, and infrastructure.
The Problem Solvers clearly didn’t see themselves as negotiating in Pelosi’s stead. Instead, they were hoping to broker some sort of movement on talks between Trump and Democratic leaders, they said.
“We were there not to negotiate anything other than try to inspire a negotiation and with a strong message we’ve got to do so when the government is open,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN). “Reopen government, and get back to the table.”
Meanwhile, a number of first-term Democratic House members were desperately looking for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who they were trying to convince to hold a Senate vote on opening up the government. They couldn’t find him in his Capitol Building office, so they went onto the Senate floor to try to leave a note on his desk there, eventually dropping it off in his office in the Russell Senate office building.
“Where’s Mitch, is my question?” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told reporters. “He seems to be running away from us.”
The Problem Solvers tried their best. But Washington’s big problem — getting Republican and Democratic leaders into a room to agree on a compromise — still isn’t solved.
Some Democrats are meeting with Trump, but not the ones with negotiating power
This week, all parties to the shutdown seemed just as dug in as when it started.
Trump’s position on not reopening the government without Democratic leaders agreeing to a physical barrier on the southern border hasn’t changed, according to Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX), who spoke to the Washington Post’s Jackie Alemany after the meeting.
The president “definitely has a very serious misconception of the border & a very flawed idea of it,” Gonzalez told Alemany. The Texas Democrat said Trump complained he didn’t know why the United States has ports of entry and repeated a notion that migrants can drive down the border and “turn left” into the United States.
“I think he’s convinced himself that that’s what the border is,” Gonzalez said.
But most members of the Problems Solvers said little about their meeting with Trump, other than calling it “productive.”
“The president spent a lot of time with us, the vice president spent a lot of time with us, his team spent a lot of time with us,” said Rep. Max Rose (D-NY). “This is about trust building and opening the government back up. It’s a slow process.”
House Democrats who went to the White House Wednesday were lobbying Trump to open the government back up before negotiations continue on immigration and the border. But at least one said they would be open to some kind of physical barrier on the southern border.
“I have said multiple times that I support some element of a physical barrier as part of an overall package on border security, but it’s also got to include more funding for border agents, it’s got to include more technology,” said Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY). “But I’ve always been consistent in saying if the experts tell us a physical barrier makes sense, I will support it.”
Brindisi said Trump clearly had “strong beliefs on his side” but added he got a sense the president “wants to find a way through the shutdown.”
Trump hasn’t scheduled a meeting with Democratic leadership in a while. Now they’re trying other tactics.
Trump has spent a good part of this week inviting rank-and-file Democrats to meet with him at the White House, instead of Democratic leadership. Tuesday, the president sent out a number of last-minute invites to a few Democratic members of the Blue Dog Coalition to the White House — none of whom showed up.
While this might outwardly look like the president is trying to strike a bipartisan deal, it’s hollow. The White House can only strike a deal with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; their rank-and-file members cannot do the negotiating for their leaders.
“I think they’re trying to pick off certain people and see if they can get them,” a Democratic aide close to the talks told Vox on Tuesday. “I don’t understand what he’s trying to get out of this, other than a silly photo op. Nothing can happen without leadership. They need to agree on this.”
Pelosi appears to be trying a different tack with Trump; on Wednesday, she wrote a letter to the president saying she wants to postpone his State of the Union address until after the shutdown. Pelosi cited security concerns, saying that since Secret Service and others aren’t getting paid, it could be too dangerous to carry on the event as planned.
Essentially, Pelosi just uninvited Trump from delivering his address, taking away a national platform to be able to tell the American people his side of the shutdown story. The House Speaker is putting another pressure point on Trump to try to persuade him to get the government up and running.
The moderate Democrats who traveled to the White House on Wednesday went in with the demand that the government be reopened before further immigration negotiations take place, a demand that is in line with their caucus leaders. Pelosi and her deputies aren’t too worried about Trump being able to peel people off.
“Is anybody surprised that the president is trying to get votes wherever he can get votes?” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer asked reporters Tuesday morning. “We are totally united, totally.”