A Wall and Two Prayers, but Little Progress at Weekend Meetings on the Shutdown

A Wall and Two Prayers, but Little Progress at Weekend Meetings on the Shutdown

Vice President Mike Pence, center, arrived for a meeting with Congressional leadership, along with Jared Kushner and Kirstjen Nielsen, at the Eisenhower Executive Building in Washington on Sunday.CreditCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Vice President Mike Pence insisted on beginning the first meeting with a prayer, so the chief of staff to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, asked God to “to bring us together” when negotiators met Saturday in Mr. Pence’s ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The next day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff members, who were representing the Democratic side, began with their own prayer, which noted that Jesus and Mary were both refugees.

The two disparate prayers underscored the stalemate that lawmakers find themselves in as the shutdown drags into its third week: The two sides could not even agree on a pro forma invocation.

Sixteen days into the partial government shutdown, Congressional Democrats and the White House have made little progress. The two weekend meetings, described by White House officials and Democratic staffers in attendance who wished to remain anonymous, showed in ways big and small how the distance between the two sides remains a wide gulf with no clear compromise on the horizon.

The Democratic staffers, who on Sunday waited for about 45 minutes when Republicans were late to the scheduled meeting, said they would not negotiate on the border wall until the government was reopened, according to a White House official in the room. Mr. Pence made it clear that the White House would not budge from the $ 5.7 billion in funding it wants for a wall, and that the White House would not reopen the government by supporting the six-bill package that the House has passed, according to a Democratic official familiar with the meeting.

And the White House had no response, Democratic staffers said, when they pushed to acknowledge that making Transportation Security Administration officials work without pay, and shuttering other agencies, was creating a security crisis in itself. When pressed to put their demands in writing, the gap between the sides seemed to widen even more as Republicans added requests for asylum port-of-entry changes that Democrats do not favor, and for additional presence of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement along the border.

Republicans, for their part, were more eager to demonstrate that progress was made over the weekend.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, on “Fox News Sunday” called the meetings “the beginning of a conversation” and said, “The fact that they’re sitting down at the table is some progress.”

But Democrats said they were left with the impression that the most senior officials in attendance were arguing that they were not empowered to make any agreements. Mr. Pence noted that no numbers for wall funding would be discussed because the meeting was not a principals’ meeting. And when he introduced the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the person who knew Mr. Trump better than anyone, Mr. Kushner demurred, saying that distinction belonged to his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter, who was not in the meeting.

A White House staffer in attendance described the weekend discussions as productive and cordial, but blamed Ms. Pelosi for being unwilling to look like she was negotiating with Mr. Trump to end the shutdown.

While there was little common ground, some small advances were made, White House officials said. Republicans agreed that a concrete wall was a non-starter, and that any text of a bill would refer to steel and not concrete.

And even though Mr. Pence said numbers would not be part of the weekend discussions, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, on Sunday provided Democrats with a written statement outlining why the administration needed $ 5.7 billion for a barrier along the southern border.

In the meeting, Ms. Nielsen also gave the full briefing she had prepared to give Democratic leaders last week in the Situation Room, outlining what the White House has described as a crisis at the border. Several Democrats in the room, according to the White House official, said they agreed with her that a humanitarian border crisis did exist. But the Democrats who were interviewed said the two sides remained far apart about what constituted the correct response to a humanitarian crisis.

Stephen Miller, the White House policy aide who has been the architect of the president’s immigration policies and its public face, occupied a seat along the edge of the room at Saturday’s meeting, not at the table, and spoke infrequently, according to attendees. He interjected memorably only once, to argue that the Flores agreement, which limits how long the government can detain immigrant children to 20 days, was creating a loophole for smugglers.

Mr. Kushner at one point defended Mr. Miller, calling him an expert on the subject. White House aides chuckled when he noted Mr. Miller’s hard-line reputation as an immigration zealot was unfair. The Democrats, however, did not express any amusement. Mr. Kushner asked the Democrats at the table why they would not concede to changes in the Flores agreement, but Mr. Pence later clarified that changes were not a condition of their negotiations.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Trump hinted that he might be willing to come to an agreement with Democrats on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and addressing the issue of thousands of young immigrants who live in the country illegally. But the subject of a DACA-for-wall deal was never broached over the weekend, aides said.

And when Democrats asked Mr. Pence about the possibility of the president declaring a “national emergency” in order to secure money to build a wall, as he floated to reporters on Sunday, Mr. Pence said the president has not yet made a decision.

The White House made clear on Monday that Mr. Trump was standing firm on his insistence for a border wall. Ms. Sanders announced on Twitter that Mr. Trump would visit the southern border, to highlight the ongoing “national security and humanitarian crisis.”


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