(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has gained little leverage with Democrats two weeks into the partial government shutdown of his own making, with fewer possible escape routes and a more treacherous path ahead as the GOP relinquishes control of the House.
The president made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room with border patrol agents on Thursday, hours after Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, to make his case. But he took no questions from reporters who assembled expecting a news conference by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“Without a wall you cannot have border security,” Trump told reporters. “It won’t work.”
He invited leaders of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union that represents 18,000 border patrol agents and other federal workers, to speak briefly in support of building a wall on the border with Mexico.
Earlier, Trump asked Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to resume talks at an 11:30 a.m. Friday meeting at the White House, according to White House spokesman Hogan Gidley. The continuing impasse raises the possibility that Trump will deliver his State of the Union address with part of the government still shut down. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hours after she assumed leadership of the chamber, invited the president to give the speech before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 29.
Trump turned to the bully pulpit this week with a stream of tweets and an extended televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday to press his case for the border wall. Later, he and top congressional leaders met for what was billed as a briefing on border security issues in the Situation Room at the White House.
The White House meeting quickly devolved into political posturing.
Trump accused Democrats of political gamesmanship, saying in a tweet Thursday that the shutdown “is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election” and “strictly politics.”
“I have never had so much support as I have had in the past week over my stance for border security, for border control,” he said in the briefing room. His approval rating was 39 percent in the week that ended Dec. 22, the most recent for which polling results are available, according to Gallup.
On Thursday night, the new House Democratic majority voted to end the shutdown but provided no money for the wall. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have signaled they see an opportunity to gain further leverage against the White House.
The Democrats’ approach –- and their underlying intransigence -- has been made easier by a president who has repeatedly misplayed his hand during negotiations.
Trump’s most severe misstep was self-inflicted. In a meeting with Pelosi and Schumer last month, the president defiantly boasted that he would be “proud” to “take the mantle” of shutting the government down if he didn’t get the more than $5 billion he was seeking for building the wall.
That would cause political trouble for even the most popular of politicians -– and poses a particular hazard for one whose approval rating regularly hit historic lows even before the latest personnel turnovers at the White House, and market swings fueled by ongoing trade disputes.
“The president said, ‘I am going to shut the government down,’” Schumer said. “They are now feeling the heat. It is not helping the president, it is not helping the Republicans, to be the owners of this shutdown.”
Trump also hasn’t cultivated an image as a person ready to seek common ground. On Wednesday, he said he wasn’t willing to budge on his wall funding demand. He also appeared to rule out a broader compromise that could offer protected status for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
“As long as it takes,” Trump said when asked how long he would hold out. “Look, I’m prepared -- I think the people of the country think I’m right.”
Fifty-seven percent of Americans wanted Trump to compromise on the wall before the shutdown, and nearly seven in 10 said the wall wasn’t an immediate priority, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published Dec. 11.
Democrats haven’t offered even cursory concessions as the consequences of the funding lapse are rapidly intensifying, underscoring how little ground Trump has earned as the shutdown has progressed.
But Pelosi is facing pressures of her own as newly elected progressives aim to take the Democratic Party further to the left.
Earlier Thursday, the House voted 234-197 to pass part of its package of legislative rules -- normally a routine matter, but a few Democratic progressives decided to oppose their own party’s rules. Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said the package was flawed because it contains a “pay as you go” austerity provision supported by Democratic centrists. Only Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii joined them in voting against the rules.
Trump’s unequivocal embrace of responsibility for the shutdown has helped deflect other news -- such as the fatal shooting of a California police officer, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, or Pelosi’s vacation at a Hawaiian resort as hundreds of thousands of federal workers worried about their pay -- that may have eroded the Democrats’ political standing.
Some of the president’s allies have not helped his cause. His outgoing chief of staff, John Kelly, said the president had already retreated from his initial plans for a “solid concrete wall” early in the administration.
Others in the Senate, including Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, have said Trump must seek compromise to end the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has laid the issue at Trump’s feet by saying the upper chamber will only adopt legislation -- including bills that passed late last year -- if they have White House support.
McConnell’s position has kept Trump from having to issue the first presidential veto of his term, but otherwise has offered him little political cover.
McConnell said Thursday the House votes were “political theater, not productive lawmaking.” The Kentucky Republican said his chamber won’t take up the spending bills because they don’t contain spending increases for border security.
For Trump, the set of options seems to have diminished.
If he accepts a funding deal from Democrats that offers little or no money for new wall construction, he risks alienating a base that has provided a steady line of support and undermining his self-proclaimed status as a master negotiator.
Allowing the shutdown to drag along carries risks as well. While Trump can continue to elevate immigration as a potent political wedge, a prolonged shutdown could add uncertainty to already volatile markets as federal workers and contractors begin missing paychecks and invoices.
Yet with Democrats showing little inclination to budge as the shutdown stretches into its third week, Trump posed the key question to himself rhetorically as he met with his cabinet on Wednesday.
“Well, I’d rather not say it -- could we do it for a little bit less?” Trump said.
(Updates with State of the Union details and congressional vote, starting in fifth paragraph.)
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