WASHINGTON — President Trump’s evolving definition of a border wall animated negotiations to end a partial government shutdown on Sunday, while House Democrats moved to increase pressure on the president by vowing to pass individual bills to reopen targeted departments that handle critical functions like tax refunds and food stamps.
“I informed my folks to say that we’ll build a steel barrier,” Mr. Trump told reporters after returning to the White House from a senior staff meeting at Camp David. He added of the Democrats, “They don’t like concrete, so we’ll give them steel.”
The president characterized the second day of talks between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic congressional aides as “productive” after saying earlier in the day that he did not anticipate much progress. But Mr. Trump also said that, if no deal could be reached over his demand for $ 5.7 billion for the border wall, he was still considering using “emergency” authority to build the barrier with other government funds.
For their part, Democrats said there was no progress as the shutdown entered its 16th day, and asked again that the government be reopened before negotiations on border security money begin.
A day before, they had asked the administration for a detailed plan of how such money would be used, and the Office of Management and Budget responded with a letter on Sunday evening reiterating the president’s request for $ 5.7 billion for the construction of “a steel barrier” along the southern border. Democrats have rebuffed that figure.
The Border Wall: What Has Trump Built So Far?
The existing barrier isn’t a single mile longer than it was when he took office.
But the letter also provided a fuller picture of Mr. Trump’s border demands. In a small gesture to Democrats, it said the president wanted $ 800 million “to address urgent humanitarian needs,” including enhanced medical treatment. It also asked for funds to support 52,000 detention beds and 2,000 more law enforcement agents.
The shutdown, which is threatening to become the longest in American history, is affecting about 800,000 federal workers, many of whom will soon miss their first paycheck, and has curtailed the functions of numerous government agencies. The impasse has also added another crisis to Mr. Trump’s turbulent presidency as he adjusts to working in an era in which he must now share power with Democrats.
The party’s leaders gave little indication that they would come to terms with the president if he simply changed the materials used to construct the wall. Mr. Trump has been talking at least since mid-December about building a wall made up of “artistically designed steel slats” instead of concrete, but he seized on the idea on Sunday to a new degree.
“There’s no requirement that this government be shut down while we deliberate the future of any barrier, whether it’s a fence or a wall,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
But Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said that while he thought the shutdown was “going to drag on a lot longer,” Mr. Trump’s shift in wall materials could provide a semantic opening to advance the talks.
“If he has to give up a concrete wall, replace it with a steel fence in order to do that so that Democrats can say, ‘See? He’s not building a wall anymore,’ that should help us move in the right direction,” Mr. Mulvaney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If that’s not evidence of the president’s desire to try and resolve this, I don’t know what is.”
While Mr. Trump had expressed little hope for the talks on Sunday, he indicated that the coming days would offer a chance to show that resolve. “I think we’re going to have some very serious talks come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” he said.
Democrats believe they have a plan to bring new leverage to the negotiations. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would begin considering individual appropriations bills this week that would reopen the government, starting with legislation that would return workers to the Treasury Department, including the Internal Revenue Service, followed by measures to open the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and the Interior.
Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, said on “Meet the Press”: “We’ll do it bill by bill so we can help taxpayers, we can help people who need food assistance, we can help people who need housing vouchers, people who need flood insurance. ”
Those bills have little chance in the Senate, where Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has held fast to his pledge that he would not put any legislation on the floor that the president would not approve.
Congressional Republicans employed a bill-by-bill strategy of their own in 2015 on the brink of a government shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood, only to have Democrats block all 12 spending bills approved by the Appropriations Committee.
The president said last week that he opposed that approach, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said last month that the president would need to publicly support any funding measures before they were considered, adding that “we can’t have another situation when the president signals support at first but then reverses himself.” Mr. Trump did just that in December after the Senate passed bills to avert the shutdown.
Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, whose state has one of the highest concentrations of federal workers, has suggested that Democrats block the consideration of all bills unrelated to opening the government until Senate Republicans allow a vote on the House bills.
There may be added pressure on Mr. McConnell from his own ranks. Three Senate Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — have called for reopening the government. Two other Republican senators who have been critical of the shutdown, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas, have announced that they will not seek re-election in 2020, so they would not face the electoral consequences of incurring Mr. Trump’s wrath.
However, some other lawmakers, like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is continuing to advocate a deal in which Mr. Trump would get his wall funding and Democrats would get new protections for the young immigrants known as Dreamers, view the shutdown with less urgency.
“I do want to open the government, but the goal is not to open the government. The goal is to fix a broken immigration system,” Mr. Graham said. He added later, “It was pretty clear to me that we’re never going to have a deal unless we get a wall as part of it.”
Ms. Pelosi, in her first sit-down interview on network television since reclaiming the speaker’s gavel last week, blasted Mr. Trump for suggesting that he may unilaterally move to build the border wall.
“The impression you get from the president is that he would like to not only close government, build a wall, but also abolish Congress so the only voice that mattered was his own,” Ms. Pelosi told Jane Pauley in the interview, which aired on CBS News’s “Sunday Morning.”
Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Trump did have the power to declare a national emergency to build the wall. “Unfortunately, the short answer is yes,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” But he said the president would face a court challenge asking “Where is the emergency?”