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Dems spurn Trump on shutdown talks

House Democrats’ refusal to meet with President Donald Trump was the latest setback for a president who is running out of options to reopen the government and realize his long-standing pledge to build the border wall. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Democrats refused to participate in a Tuesday afternoon meeting with President Donald Trump, dashing the White House’s unlikely hopes of reaching a grand bargain with moderates to reopen the government and secure money for border security.

White House aides had reached out to several centrist Democratic lawmakers in hopes of dividing the caucus and going around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who have strongly objected to Trump’s demand for more than $ 5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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“Today, the President offered both Democrats and Republicans the chance to meet for lunch at the White House. Unfortunately, no Democrats will attend,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “The President looks forward to having a working lunch with House Republicans to solve the border crisis and reopen the government. It’s time for the Democrats to come to the table and make a deal.”

Tuesday’s meeting instead included eight Republicans and no Democrats — and rather than making progress to end the longest shutdown in history, GOP lawmakers emerged from the meeting pointing fingers at their colleagues in the other party. “If you don’t show up at the table how in the world are you ever going to come up with a solution?” asked one of the participants, Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis.

“I thought I was coming to a bipartisan luncheons. No Democrats showed up,” Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup told reporters gathered on the White House driveway.

It’s the latest setback for a president who is running out of options to reopen the government and realize his long-standing pledge to build the border wall. With the shutdown stretching into its 25th day, negotiations between Trump and top congressional Democrats have screeched to a halt, with both sides refusing to shift their positions.

A bipartisan group of senators are also now talking about a way out of the shutdown, but hopes are slim in the Senate that they can reach a solution that the president will endorse. Both chambers are now planning to stay in session over the planned Martin Luther King Day recess next week, given the terrible optics of skipping town amid the shutdown.

And the White House is expected to send out a second round of invites to members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, according to one official. But a senior Democratic aide said that meeting had already been in the works before this latest White House gambit.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

On Monday, senior White House officials privately expressed hope that Trump would be able to win over some moderate Democrats, despite eye rolling from some in the Capitol who believed the administration was unlikely to succeed in driving a wedge between the largely unified party.

“You’re not going to have people cracking or splitting up like you’re seeing on the Republican [side],” said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.). “Trump said it was his shutdown, he’s hurting everyday families that are in all of our districts. People see the hostage taking and we’re not going to give in.”

Still, even those in the White House who were skeptical that Democrats would show up saw a strategic advantage to inviting them: their lack of participation could give Trump ammunition to make the case that he’s trying to solve the crisis, while Democrats are refusing to sit down at the negotiating table.

Indeed, after Tuesday’s meeting, the Republican lawmakers who participated bashed Democrats for refusing to participate. The lawmakers insisted that Trump was ready to compromise, but offered no specifics about what such a deal might look like.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Tuesday morning that while Democrats support dialogue on this issue, “every individual member [invited to the White House] will have to make a determination about whether they believe it will be fruitful dialogue.”

“The question everybody can reasonably ask: Is he inviting people to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to really try to resolve this problem?” Jeffries (D-N.Y.) asked. “Or to create a photo-op to project a false sense of bipartisanship.”

Across the Capitol, things were barely any better in the Senate, where Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was trying to whip up a gang to reopen the government and then negotiate on immigration. But Trump has repeatedly panned that idea, and leaders were not exactly enthusiastic about a group of centrists solving the shutdown.

“In the end they’ve got to get the White House involved in that. And I think right now this is just kind of touching the gloves and figuring out where everybody is and if there’s enough support and enough Democrats willing to come to the table,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota. But Democrats in the group and out of it said they weren’t ready to negotiate on anything until the government opens back up.

And at least three moderate House Democrats — Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist from Florida and Lou Correa from California — turned down the offer to have lunch with Trump.

“I don’t know what their strategy is,” Crist said in an interview, adding that there’s concern among some on the invite list about being used as pawns by Trump.

“I have attended meetings with the President at the White House before, but a scheduling conflict prevented me from accepting this invitation,” said Murphy in a statement. “However, I continue to believe the Senate should pass and the President should sign the bills reopening government that the House already passed.”

Both Murphy and Crist cited already scheduled events as a reason why they couldn’t go but other lawmakers and aides said there’s an effort behind the scenes by Democratic leaders to project unity within the caucus, and having a handful of rank-and-file members go to the White House would not be good optics for the party.

Reps. David Scott (D-Ga.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) also received invitations, according to a senior White House official. But Scott’s spokesman, Gary Woodward, disputed that account, saying his office received no such invitation. A spokesman for Spanberger did not return multiple requests for comment.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) also announced Tuesday afternoon he declined an offer from the White House to meet with Trump.

At a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday, Pelosi rallied Democrats to stand united in the shutdown and pointed to polling showing Republicans are taking the blame.

Pelosi encouraged Democrats to talk about families hurt by the shutdown to try to pressure Republicans to re-open the government. “It is,” she said, according to a source in the room, “essential that their stories be told… Every chance you get: on the floor, in the media, in the social media — the stories of the families.”

The California Democratic leader also encouraged Democrats to emphasize the need to re-open the government first and negotiate on border security after. And she highlighted all the Homeland Security provisions Democrats do support to crack down on drugs flowing in from other nations and other crimes, including stronger infrastructure at ports of entry, more border security personnel and technology to secure the border.

Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer privately counseled lawmakers who received those invitations to do what they have to for their districts — but don’t be used as a prop.

“Is anybody surprised that the president is trying to get votes wherever he can get votes?” Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday. “We are totally united, totally.”

The discussion about Trump’s intent came up at the weekly meeting Monday night of conservative Blue Dog Democrats as several members struggled with whether to attend and openly worried that they were just being used as a convenient photo-op for the president.

“I think given the nature of this president, I think that should always be on everyone’s minds,” Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a Blue Dog who wasn’t invited to the White House but attended the group’s meeting Monday. “Given the way he likes to manipulate the press and use members to try to change people’s perception.”

White House

One House Democratic aide called the White House’s outreach “haphazard,” saying Democratic lawmakers received their invitations at random times Monday night, “on nearly an hourly basis” instead of a specific bloc of members all receiving the invitation at the same time.

And the invitation itself was brief, according to a screenshot provided to POLITICO. “On behalf of President Trump, we would like to invite your Member of Congress to attend lunch at the White House tomorrow,” it read without adding more detail about the subject of the meeting.

Even as Democratic leaders kept their caucus united on Tuesday, the issue of who was even on the invitation list remained a sensitive topic among members and aides.

Some lawmakers wouldn’t even say if they received an invite from the White House. Spanberger, one of nearly two dozen freshmen Democrats in Trump-won districts, wouldn’t answer reporters’ questions about whether she had received an invite from Trump.

Spanberger repeatedly told reporters to follow up with her staff even though two reporters said they reached out to her office on the issue Monday and never heard back.

The Virginia Democrat who knocked off GOP hard-liner Dave Brat in November stood up in a caucus meeting last week to complain about how Democrats were losing the messaging war on the shutdown. She was much more tight-lipped Tuesday.

“I’m not giving an interview. You’re welcome to reach out to my office for quotes,” Spanberger said.

Burgess Everett, Gabby Orr, Laura Barrón-López and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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