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No breakthrough to end partial government shutdown

Posted at 9:55 AM, Jan 07, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The partial government shutdown headed into its third week over the weekend.

After two days of staff-level meetings, led by Vice President Mike Pence, the two sides are no closer to a deal, according to multiple people involved from both parties. It was more laying out of positions than talks for a potential breakthrough or pathway out of a partial government shutdown. This isn't ending any time soon.

The bottom line is that something -- and one side -- has to give, and at this point neither side has given any indication that buckling is on their agenda. The weekend talks didn't get them closer to that point, at least not in a manner that will result in a clear next step in the process. Until things loosen up -- and to be perfectly clear, people involved have indicated they simply haven't yet in any tangible way -- things will remain in their current place for the coming days, and, quite possibly, weeks.

The weekend meetings

People in the meetings say they included more than 40 staffers from Capitol Hill and the White House. However, a meeting with more than 40 staffers and none of the key principals (congressional leaders leaders or the President) is not designed to end with an outcome. It was never going to lead to an agreement, and most certainly did not.

The best case result of the meeting, according to one person involved, is the two sides started talking again, with some detail, after a week dominated by two meetings between the leaders and the President that went, in the words of another congressional official: "epically bad."

In fact, something several people in the room told me was that they were struck that the meetings were "normal." As in: it was not unlike a traditional negotiation between two entrenched parties. That's far from a recipe for a deal, but given the week that was, in the words of one of the people in the room for both weekend sessions: "Better than everything else that happened this week."

What actually happened during the meetings this weekend

During the Pence-led meetings, there was no resolution of differences, people involved say, but the White House did produce a three-page proposal laying out its budget request. A reminder here, the White House request for border security was actually $1.6 billion. The $5.7 billion didn't come til much later, so this was an effort to address that, and it was specifically requested by Democrats at the Saturday meeting.

The official White House proposal

This was the proposal provided to Democratic staff during the meeting Sunday.

The request, sent to Congressional leaders and appropriators, is for $5.7 billion for "construction of a steel barrier for the Southwest Border." In total, the request "would fund construction of a total of approximately 234 miles of new physical barrier and fully fund the top 10 priorities in (US Customs and Border Protection's) Border Security Improvement Plan," the administration states.

The proposal also includes $800 million in additional funding "for enhanced medical support, transportation, consumable supplies appropriate for the population, and additional temporary facilities for processing and short-term custody of this vulnerable population."

Republicans involved in the meeting said the proposal, officially put together by the Office of Management and Budget, represented an important point the process -- a White House that has been tough to pin down on what exactly the President wants and what specifically his targets are for the money has now put something on paper. Like spending proposals from every administration ever, it is a starting point with no future in its entirety. But it's something on paper.

Democrats had a harsher view of the document, which Democratic officials note did not constitute a full budget justification and did not present any commensurate cuts in the Department of Homeland Security spending to accommodate the cuts. In other words, it fell short of what they requested the day before and as such, was essentially a non-starter.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- or any discussion over a broad deal that would include protections for the DACA population in exchange for a border wall -- did not come up at all in the weekend talks. It is still not considered a live option by the congressional players involved in the talks.

Choose your own adventure

President Donald Trump, in a Sunday tweet, said the Sunday meeting was "productive."

A Democratic official familiar with the meeting characterized it this way:

"No progress was made today. At this time, there is not another meeting of this group scheduled."

The players

Given the lack of tangible progress, one of the more interesting elements of the meetings this past weekend were the players involved. Congressional leadership and the President are the dominant players in this shutdown, but others have roles, and that became even more clear this week, most notably with the vice president and Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the President as well as his son-in-law.

The vice president helming staff-level talks is extremely unorthodox. The VP is principal level, not staff level, and for staffers in both parties, having the second-ranked official in the US government sitting at the center of the table in his ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building was, in the words of one: "surreal," and another: "kind of bizarre."

That said, people involved from both parties said he led meetings that were as constructive as they could be and cordial without fail. Pence has been a key player in the shutdown talks from the start -- from shuttling to Capitol Hill offices in the hours before it started to serving as the primary liaison to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer after it commenced. During the weekend, he kept the President's line throughout. There was one point of frustration for Democrats -- the Sunday meeting started 45 minutes late, which frustrated staff. But the reason, according to two sources, is that Pence was asking the Office of Management and Budget to add more detail and information to the proposal they were going to present to Democrats.

Something people in the meeting from both sides of the aisle have talked about is how active Kushner was throughout the talks. He spoke as much or more than just about anyone else at the table, the people said, and regularly couched his comments in private sector terminology -- including his explanation of "customer utilization" and customer demand at the border, that would lead to cost overruns and thus, an increased top-line number. It was an explanation that brought quizzical looks from several staffers in the room, the people said. But it's clear, at least in the view of congressional staff in the room, that fresh off his role in the passage of criminal justice reform, he factors himself in as a key player in this process (and has since he trekked to Capitol Hill hours before the shutdown to push for a resolution -- an effort that up to this point has not led to a solution). There is significant skepticism among aides in both parties he can re-recreate what occurred in when criminal justice reform was passed, for a dozen or so reasons, but he's nonetheless a very key player in the process.

The pain is coming

Historically, it's not a compromise, but the pain inflicted by the shutdown, either politically or throughout the country, or both, that bring an end to the stand off. We've noted this before, but this shutdown came at an odd time -- during the holidays, as one Congress was ending and another was starting and just one day after payroll in the two-week federal pay period that applies to a large portion of the 800,000 federal workers affect. Add to all of that the shut down hit only 25% of the government, and it has taken longer to bite than others. That's starting to change in a major way.

This Friday is the first time the vast majority of workers effected will miss a full paycheck, and their personal stories are viscerally painful and will fill the airwaves. By the end of the week, this would become the longest shutdown in history, a symbolic but no less headline grabbing moment.

With that in mind, this story about TSA workers calling out sick, from CNN's Rene Marsh and Gregory Wallace, rocketed around congressional offices on Friday.

Agencies that were stringing operations together on left over money are now out. Contingency funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, will likely start to run short in February.

Tax refunds are in danger of being frozen if the IRS remains shutdown in the weeks ahead.

An underappreciated element is the looming PAYGO sequester, which would likely force Medicare cuts in the coming weeks if it isn't addressed by Congress.

In other words, this is about to get very real and very painful. And that pain will be used as a cudgel by parties seeking to amp up the pressure on the other side in the days ahead. That, more than anything else, tends to shock lawmakers to the table with a willingness to negotiate.

The President's view

Asked Sunday if he could relate to federal workers who may not be able to pay their bills, Trump responded, "I can relate. And I'm sure that the people that are toward the receiving end will make adjustments, they always do. And they'll make adjustments. People understand exactly what's going on."

As a technical reminder, Congress has always managed to pass something to ensure government workers affected by a shutdown receive their back pay (the US Senate actually passed just that before the end of the last Congress.) That will almost certainly happen again, but it does little to help in the meantime.

And while federal workers are almost certain to receive their back pay eventually, the same assurance doesn't stand for federal contractors -- a good reminder that the pain of a shut down spreads beyond the direct affect on federal employees.

With that in mind, two of the senators who helped pass the backpay bill in the last Congress and have already introduced the same this Congress -- Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin of Maryland -- are urging colleagues to block consideration of any legislation in the Senate until legislation to reopen the government is considered.

The positions

The positions of those negotiating remain the key piece of what's happening right now.

Democratic staff repeatedly told administration officials inside the meeting that the government needed to be re-opened before tangible progress could be made on border security negotiations. They again requested the administration consider the two-bill package passed by the Democratic-led House last week.

Pence made clear that was a non-starter, and the White House position remains what the President made clear in his Rose Garden news conference on Friday -- the government will not re-open until there is an agreement on border security and, from their perspective, the wall.

What comes next on Capitol Hill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Saturday night that the chamber will begin moving funding bills for the shuttered agencies individually this week. The first bill up will be the financial services funding measure, which includes the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Services (see: tax refunds).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn't moved off his position that he will not put anything on the floor that doesn't have the President's support, so at this point, those bills, like the two passed by the House last week, don't have a future. But they will show House Democrats are taking legislative action to re-open the government, even as talks remain stalled.

Keep an eye on

Democrats and Republicans both are keeping a close eye on how rank-and-file GOP lawmakers react to the ongoing shutdown today. Democrats seized on the handful of House Republicans who voted with Democrats on their proposal last week, as well as the two senators -- Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine -- as evidence their strategy was forcing cracks in the Republican ranks. That hasn't been born out throughout the rest of the House and Senate conferences up to this point -- and people familiar with both say they remain steadfast behind the President. But that will be a key piece to keep an eye on this week.

Democratic leaders were of the belief that the weekend meetings, which as I noted above weren't constructed in a way to lead to an actual resolution, were instead put together in an effort to head off any wavering Republicans, several sources tell me. In their view, the meetings were cover -- the appearance of substantive talks when none existed, so rank and file Republicans could tell their constituents things were actually happening.

Both the House and Senate are out of session until Tuesday. People involved expect another meeting between leaders and the President to be scheduled soon, but it hasn't been put on the books yet. Staff talks are expected to continue.