Pence leading shutdown talks with congressional staffers

WASHINGTON — With many federal workers frozen out of the jobs and vacationers blocked from public attractions their tax dollars pay for, talks between White House officials and congressional aides kicked off Saturday aimed at ending a government shutdown that President Donald Trump has said could last years.

In what has become a winter of discontent, negotiations are at an impasse over Trump’s demands for $5.6 billion to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, who was not expected to participate in the discussions hosted by Vice-President Mike Pence in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, spent the morning tweeting about border security.

Showing little empathy for the hundreds of thousands furloughed or working without pay, Trump declared — without citing evidence — that most are Democrats. He also asserted: “I want to stop the Shutdown as soon as we are in agreement on Strong Border Security! I am in the White House ready to go, where are the Dems?”

One Democrat, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, said in his party’s weekly radio address that the shutdown “is part of a larger pattern of a president who puts his personal whims and his effort to score political points before the needs of the American people. … He is pointing fingers at everyone but himself.”

Democratic and Republican staffers from Capitol Hill were expected at discussions with Trump’s representatives — Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and presidential adviser Jared Kushner. Still, it is always an open question whether a Trump team is fully empowered to negotiate for the president.

Pence tweeted that the aim “will be to find a solution- not simply to end the gov’t shutdown- to provide funding to end the crisis at our southern border, achieve real border security & to build the wall!”

The partial shutdown entered a 15th day Saturday. Trump and Democrats met for roughly two hours Friday, but gave differing accounts of the session. Democrats reported little progress; Trump framed the weekend talks as a key step forward.

As the shutdown drags on, some Republicans are growing increasingly nervous. Some GOP senators up for re-election in 2020, including Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, have voiced discomfort with the shutdown in recent days.

Democrats have called on Trump to reopen government while negotiations on border security continue, emphasizing families unable to pay bills due to absent paychecks. But Trump has repeatedly said he will not budge without money for the wall.

Trump had asserted on Friday that he could declare a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval, but would first try a “negotiated process.” Trump previously described the situation at the border as a “national emergency” before he sent active-duty troops; critics described that as a pre-election stunt.

Trump said the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay would want him to “keep going” and fight for border security. Asked how people would manage without a financial safety net, he said: “The safety net is going to be having a strong border because we’re going to be safe.”

Democrats expressed skepticism Friday that there would be a breakthrough.

“It’s very hard to see how progress will be made unless they open up the government,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

Trump confirmed to reporters that he privately told Democrats, in the Friday meeting with congressional leaders, that shutdown could drag on for “months or even years.”

A variety of strategies are being floated inside and outside the White House. Among them is the idea of trading wall money for a deal on immigrants brought to the country as young people and now here illegally, or using a national emergency declaration to build the wall. But Trump made clear during his news conference that talk on DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) would have to wait.

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