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Democrats remain oddly aligned in border wall fight, confounding Trump and Republicans

Nancy Pelosi, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Peter DeFazio, Anthony Brown, Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow Democrats.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Hoping to make a crack in Democratic unity as the partial government shutdown reached Day 25, President Trump invited a handful of moderate Democrats to the White House on Tuesday for lunch and a chat.

None showed up. That despite the fact that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) jokingly encouraged them to go, confident the rank-and-file Democrats would only better appreciate the challenges she says she faces in dealing with Trump.

It was the most striking example yet of Democratic unity in the face of the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown, a rarely seen solidarity in the party that appears to be frustrating Trump and congressional Republicans.

“This is my first time ever invited to the White House,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), one of the invited Democrats and a leader of the party’s so-called Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats. “It would have been nice to go to work something out, but under the proper terms. To have a government shutdown hanging over you is not the way to start” a negotiation.

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Trump has tried a variety of approaches to get Democrats to break. He’s invited Democratic leaders to cordial White House negotiating sessions; stormed out of one of those negotiating sessions; applied public pressure with an Oval Office address and border visit; publicly attacked Democrats on Twitter; and now, tried to pick off moderate Democrats who could be interested in a bipartisan deal on their resume or hail from swing districts where he is popular.

But while several moderate Republicans in both the House and Senate have broken ranks to call for immediately reopening the government without Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in border wall money, no Democrat has publicly suggested that Democrats should give in on the wall in order to reopen the government.

“We are totally united, totally,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

In their first standoff with Trump since they seized control of the House, Democrats seem to be embracing a strict, uncompromising position with a president known for changing his mind and backing out of deals.

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Pelosi has pledged that Democrats won’t even negotiate on wall funding or any border security measures until the government reopens.

That hardline stance — uncommon in a party perhaps better known for internal divisions and a willingness to negotiate — has frustrated Republican leaders. Republicans seem thrown off balance.

“It is a real challenge when the Democrats won’t even give an offer back,” said Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House minority leader.

Yet refusing to negotiate until the government is reopened is one that has worked in previous shutdowns. President Obama used it to break a GOP-led shutdown in 2013 over Obamacare. And Trump and Republicans took a similar tack just a year ago when Democrats forced a shutdown over so-called Dreamers.

Despite Trump’s failure to lure away Democrats on Tuesday, the White House is expected to try again with a wave of offers to groups of other moderate Democrats through Thursday, according to congressional sources.

The rebuke of Trump’s invitation could portend an icy relationship between the White House and Congress for the last two years of Trump’s term. The refusal by Democrats to go to the White House was somewhat remarkable, particularly considering that rank-and-file members of the House rarely get such an invitation, let alone the chance to publicly snub the commander in chief.

“I just think it’s not appropriate to close the government as a negotiating tactic,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), who also turned down the offer. “I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m OK with that.”

Time will tell if that stance holds. Democrats who rebuffed the invite are riding on their confidence that opposition to Trump’s border wall request is popular with their base. The American public largely blames Trump for the shutdown, according to recent polls.

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More than half — or 53% — of Americans blame Trump and Republicans for the shutdown, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. Another 29% say Democrats are to blame. And 13% say both parties share blame.

But if those poll numbers shift, or the pain of the shutdown begins to worsen, Democrats could face pressure to compromise. Though they may not be ready to meet with Trump, some moderates, including Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, are beginning to meet privately to discuss the shutdown.

Even so there is no sign that the meetings will bear fruit and any deal is still likely to be cut among House and Senate leaders and the White House.

Correa said he doesn’t see any room to negotiate, as both Republicans and Democrats have only dug in further as the shutdown last week surpassed the record of 21 days set in 1996.

“I think a lot of [members], at least on our side, can see through what’s going on,” Correa said. “I mean this isn’t really about public policy. This isn’t really about security. This is about sending a message. The president is trying to send a message: either you do what I want or else.”

Democrats also feared the White House meeting could expose them to PR risks with an unpredictable president. He could have called television cameras into the meeting or characterized what the members said in a way to embarrass them or the party. Rank-and-file lawmakers would have little chance of matching Trump’s reach on Twitter or in the press to counter his version of the meeting.

Two other House Democrats, in addition to Correa and Peters, confirmed that they got the offer.

Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist, both of Florida, independently said they had scheduling conflicts. All of the members who publicly acknowledged getting an invite are members of the Blue Dog Coalition.

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Republicans say Democrats on Tuesday proved that they’re not even willing to go through the motions of a negotiation.

“Today, the president offered both Democrats and Republicans the chance to meet for lunch at the White House,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Unfortunately, no Democrats will attend.... It’s time for the Democrats to come to the table and make a deal.”

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