Shutdown enters third day with no urgency to reopen government

(Alex Brandon | The Associated Press) The setting sun illuminates clouds behind the White House during a partial federal shutdown, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Washington. The partial federal shutdown was expected to drag into Christmas as President Donald Trump and congressional leaders remained stuck in a standoff over his border wall with Mexico.

As the partial U.S. government shutdown enters a third day, lawmakers have left Washington for the Christmas holiday with no sign of urgency to resolve the fight over President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall money.

Unlike shutdowns of the past, Congress and the White House aren’t racing to reopen the government. Offices of congressional leaders who are responsible for negotiating with the president are shuttered as Trump remains at the White House after canceling a trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Previous government closures have put Washington in crisis mode with round-the-clock talks, strategy sessions and public posturing. Not so this time. The next possibility for votes in the House and Senate is Dec. 27, but Democrats have indicated the two sides are far from a deal. If there’s no agreement, many lawmakers won’t return until the new session of Congress starts on Jan. 3, when Democrats take control of the House.

"It's very possible that the shutdown will go beyond the 28th and into the new Congress," White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on "Fox News Sunday."

The top Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi of California, made a similar prediction. "Until President Trump can publicly commit to a bipartisan resolution, there will be no agreement before January when the new House Democratic Majority will swiftly pass legislation to re-open government," the California lawmaker, who is likely to become House speaker on Jan. 3, said in a letter Saturday to fellow Democrats.

Unlike the other two shutdowns this year, the one that started Saturday includes only part of the federal government — nine of 15 departments, representing about a quarter of the $1.24 trillion in government discretionary spending for fiscal year 2019. Many of the biggest government functions, including the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, have already been fully funded through September.

The partial shutdown — along with Trump declaring Monday, Christmas Eve, a federal holiday — may be contributing to a less-than-urgent approach to the negotiations.

"When everybody leaves town, it takes the pressure off for a deal," said New York Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican, one of the few lawmakers lingering in the Capitol on Sunday. "The American people expect both sides to figure it out, to come to a compromise."

Asked why Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., left Washington, spokesman Mike Ricci said by email the House will pass a plan that can get through the Senate and that the president agrees to sign. "The White House is engaged in talks with Senate Democrats, and when the Senate acts, the House will be prepared to follow," Ricci said.

The fight between Democrats and Trump is over $5 billion for wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border, a relatively small amount by Washington standards. But both sides have staked out firm positions. Trump campaigned on building a wall, which he’d originally said Mexico would pay for. Democrats say a wall is wasteful and ineffective.

The outcome of the shutdown will set the stage for the next two years of divided government in Washington, with Republicans in control of the White House and Senate and Democrats running the House.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Trump and the Democrats need to resolve the dispute over boarder funding before he brings up legislation to end the shutdown in the Senate. Even though Republicans hold a majority in the chamber, they need Democratic votes to get to the 60-vote threshold to pass funding measures.

The two sides don't appear close to a deal, even though their offers differ by tiny fraction of the overall federal budget.

There was a flurry of activity Friday night and Saturday, including a proposal to end the impasse from the White House to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The Saturday offer was $2.5 billion for border security, including new fencing and $400 million for Trump immigration priorities, according to a Democratic aide. A spokesman for Schumer said after the offer that the two sides were far apart in negotiations.

Schumer has said Trump must abandon his border wall to reopen the government, while Trump has insisted he get more than the $1.6 billion for border upgrades that Senate Democrats previously backed. The negotiations have centered on border security funding amounts and how that spending would be restricted.

Even if House Democrats pass a bill in January with no wall funding, and the Senate goes along, there’s no indication Trump would sign it or that Republicans would override the president to reopen the government — which requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

Any ultimate deal will likely depend on what defines "the wall." The White House has opened the door for a compromise by talking about "steel slats" rather than the concrete wall Trump touted in the past. Trump tweeted out a drawing of a barrier made with vertical spike-tipped slats last week.

Mulvaney said on Fox News that the drawing in Trump's tweet is what the administration wants.

“In the Democrats' mind, that is not a wall. So they have offered us $1.3 billion to build the barrier that we want — but then they go on TV and say there’s no money for the wall,” he said. “We’ve already told the Democrats we want to build what the president tweeted out. It doesn’t have to be a thirty-foot-tall concrete” barrier, he said.

Some Democrats still aren't on board.

"No steel slats," tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz, D- Hawaii.

With assistance from Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein.

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