McConnell and Pelosi Have a Fraught Relationship. The Shutdown Hasn’t Helped.

McConnell and Pelosi Have a Fraught Relationship. The Shutdown Hasn’t Helped.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are ideological opposites but two of the capital’s most experienced deal makers.CreditCreditAl Drago for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — As the reality of divided government sank in the day after the midterm elections, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who had just expanded his majority, held out hope that he and incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi would find a way to get things done despite their deep differences.

“We’re not unfamiliar with each other,” Mr. McConnell told reporters in November, recounting their time working together on spending bills, “and we’ll probably have a lot more dealings with each other in the future.”

Those dealings are off to a terrible start. A significant portion of the government remains shut down, angry accusations of irresponsibility are flying and the prospects of finding a quick solution to the crisis — or of coming together to pass significant legislation when it ends — remain grim.

Now, with Mr. McConnell making his first significant legislative overture to break the stalemate on Sunday, the outcome might rest on the capacity of Ms. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell to find a way to bridge the divide between them, their parties and the White House.

The two congressional leaders are ideological opposites who are two of the capital’s most experienced deal makers, yet to this point each has mainly called on the other to relent.

“They come from very different universes,” said Antonia Ferrier, a former top aide to Mr. McConnell who also worked in the House for the Republican leader John A. Boehner.

Ms. Pelosi says the Senate should allow votes on House-passed measures to reopen government agencies; Mr. McConnell says Democrats should support border-protection measures they have backed in the past — including those in the president’s offer on Saturday that would extend temporary protections for thousands of young immigrants at risk of deportation in exchange for wall funding. Mr. McConnell is intending to put on the Senate floor this week a plan that would immediately reopen the government, impose the deportation protections, provide the president’s wall money and offer other sweeteners for Democrats.

Mr. McConnell has tried to turn up the pressure on Ms. Pelosi in recent days — with little success — in a series of speeches on the Senate floor, accusing the “very distinguished congresswoman from San Francisco” of playing to her party’s left wing with her description of the wall as an immorality.

Ms. Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader. The shutdown has overshadowed Democrats’ legislative agenda.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

“These days, it seems like Democrats are happy to take their cues from the gentle lady from San Francisco and her extreme, fringe position that walls have now become immoral,” Mr. McConnell said in a typical rebuke to the newly restored speaker.

In a phone call with the president before Saturday’s proposal announcement, Mr. McConnell encouraged Mr. Trump to extend the offer with temporary immigration protections as a way to reach out to Ms. Pelosi and other Democrats with a more appealing overture, according to a person familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

Ms. Pelosi has argued that it is Mr. Trump’s intransigence — and Mr. McConnell’s refusal to allow a vote on House bills that would reopen the government but not fund a border wall, despite the Senate’s passage of such a measure last month — that is putting the nation at risk.

“The president’s insistence on the wall is a luxury the country can no longer afford,” Ms. Pelosi said on Thursday.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, suggested that Mr. McConnell was “way out to lunch” in trying to place responsibility for the shutdown on Ms. Pelosi. Her allies in the House say the speaker is hardly the sort to wilt under Mr. McConnell’s attacks.

“The bottom line is Pelosi is showing some leadership over here,” Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Rules Committee, said last week. “McConnell is behaving like a coward. He is afraid to take on Trump.”

As longtime party leaders, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell have history with each other, much of it not good given their divergent ideologies. Ms. Pelosi was a harsh critic of the 2017 tax law that Mr. McConnell championed. They have also clashed bitterly over the Affordable Care Act and the economic stimulus program enacted by Democrats under Ms. Pelosi’s stewardship during the first years of President Barack Obama’s administration despite Mr. McConnell rallying his party in near blanket opposition to the Democratic agenda.

Ms. Pelosi, in a television interview last year, characterized Mr. McConnell’s 2010 claim that his top priority was to make Mr. Obama a one-term president as a “racist statement.” The criticism irritated Mr. McConnell, who prides himself on his civil rights record and history. Ms. Pelosi’s office said she did not refer to Mr. McConnell himself as racist, but the comment still rankles the senator and his team.

As the parties clashed over the shutdown, Mr. McConnell threw more fuel on the fire last week with an op-ed article in The Washington Post assailing the ethics and election overhaul legislation that Democrats proudly designated H.R. 1 to emphasize its centrality to the party’s image and agenda. Mr. McConnell belittled the package as a power grab and “a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.”

Ms. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell managed to work together in the past to produce spending measures covering foreign operations when they served as top members of the relevant appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate nearly two decades ago. During the economic collapse of 2008, Mr. McConnell called Ms. Pelosi “extraordinary” in negotiating an economic recovery package embraced by both parties to calm the crisis, and she praised his leadership as well.

A spokesman for Ms. Pelosi said that the relationship between the two was strictly business and that much more of Ms. Pelosi’s time was dedicated to working with Mr. Schumer and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader.

Ms. Pelosi has ignored Mr. McConnell’s attacks, and Democrats do not believe they are doing much damage. She has instead focused her own efforts on pinning the shutdown on Mr. Trump, and suggested that he delay his State of the Union address scheduled for this month. He retaliated by canceling a military flight she intended to take to visit American troops in Afghanistan.

Democrats had planned to use their new power center on Capitol Hill to showcase their legislative priorities. But the shutdown fight is instead consuming Congress and putting in serious doubt any possibilities for initiatives on a new North American trade deal, a plan to lower drug prices and a long-sought public works bill, among other proposals with some bipartisan underpinning. Not to mention the fact that Congress needs to raise the federal debt limit this spring.

“I hope this is the low-water mark, and not the high-water mark,” said Representative Will Hurd of Texas, one of the few Republicans who have consistently joined Democrats in voting to reopen the government. “If this is an indication of how every particular issue is going to be, then divided government is going to be pretty rough on both sides.”

While Democrats are not advancing their planned agenda at the moment, they believe the shutdown is significantly harming Mr. Trump, with public opinion polls showing him getting most of the blame. Senate Republicans also take solace in the fact that polls show they are not being held accountable, one of the reasons Mr. McConnell has kept his distance from the fight.

Despite the lack of legislative activity, members of both parties still hope they can get back on track once the shutdown is resolved, with a public works bill considered the top bipartisan possibility.

“Infrastructure is not and should not be a partisan issue,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “There is substantial agreement that it needs to be done. Once we can put this behind us, we can apply ourselves to doing a real infrastructure bill.”

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said common ground could be reached. “I mean, we’ll figure something out — we always do,” he said. “We passed the criminal justice reform bill that got, what, 80-plus votes in the midst of all this polarization, so we’ll figure something out. Don’t despair.”

Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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