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Trump White House grows eager to escape losing shutdown fight

White House aides said Thursday that President Trump would wait and see what sort of a proposal House Democrats outline in a planned press conference Friday morning, and determine then whether to make a counteroffer that would reopen the government. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Now that the Senate has shot down President Donald Trump’s compromise offer to end the month-long government shutdown, White House officials aren’t sure of their next move.

But they do know one thing: they’re losing, and they want to cut a deal.

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The president is weighing the idea of a three-week continuing resolution to fund the government, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) revealed Thursday afternoon, reviving a prospect the president has previously ruled out. Trump acknowledged the proposal in an afternoon meeting with lawmakers, saying that Democrats would have to offer “some sort of pro-rated down payment” on the Mexican border wall he is demanding. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly shot down Graham’s idea, however, telling reporters late Thursday “that is not a reasonable agreement.”

The White House’s new appetite for a negotiated resolution came after the administration managed to peel off just one Democratic vote — that of Sen. Joe Manchin (D, W.V.) — a fact that came as a particular surprise to Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who has touted his relationships with Democratic lawmakers but lacks deep experience on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile several Republicans abandoned their party to vote for a Democratic counter proposal offered by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that would have funded the entire government through March 8 without providing any additional money for the wall. That was a grim sign for Trump and his aides looking for a way to end the partial shutdown.

Trump’s next move remained a mystery to many West Wing aides even as the White House considered Graham’s proposal Thursday. But with Trump’s approval rating dropping to its lowest point in a year and advisers warning of a rising economic toll from the enduring stalemate, the president and his team are more eager than ever to strike a deal, according to a half dozen sources familiar with the situation.

While the president has previously dangled the threat of a national emergency declaration, he now considers the move a “last resort,” according to a source familiar with his thinking.

“Conversations that I’ve had with my colleagues have indicated the president has told them he is willing to have negotiations occur and look at additional ideas,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who along with the rest of the caucus chewed over the next steps with Pence at lunch on Thursday ahead of the vote.

White House aides said Thursday that the president would wait and see what sort of a proposal House Democrats outline in a planned press conference Friday morning, and determine then whether to make a counteroffer that would reopen the government.

House Democrats themselves were still debating on Thursday what to put in the proposal — which they insisted was not a counteroffer to Trump. Some members were open to the idea of funding for new fencing along the border while others remain adamantly opposed. Most agreed however that, even if they only offer money for border security measures that don’t involve building a physical barrier— including surveillance technology like drones — they will need to meet or surpass Trump’s demand for $ 5.7 billion in wall funding.

Trump’s apparent new desire for a negotiated exit to the shutdown was evident on Wednesday night, when he unexpectedly bowed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s demand that he postpone his planned Tuesday State of the Union address until after the government reopens. “This is her prerogative — I will do the address when the shutdown is over,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I am not looking for an alternative venue for the SOTU address because no venue can compete with the history, tradition, and importance of the House Chamber. I look forward to giving a ‘great’ State of the Union address in the near future!”

“Thank you for recognizing that it’s inappropriate to have a State of the Union address where people are working hard, very hard, to protect all of us in that room and not getting paid for it,” Pelosi said in response Thursday during her weekly press conference, which Trump tweeted about in real time.

Unused to seeing Trump back down, Democrats say they feel emboldened by his retreat on the State of the Union question — especially coming less than a week after he cancelled an Air Force flight Pelosi and several Democrats were about to take to Afghanistan in what was widely seen as retaliation for her move to postpone his annual address to Congress.

As Trump looks for an exit strategy, most Democrats remain dug in, insisting they will not negotiate with the president until he reopens the government first.

Introducing Pelosi in a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Thursday, a triumphant House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) quoted Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win,” Clyburn said. “Thank you for winning for us. Now let’s go to war.”

Many Republicans continue to blame Democrats for what they call an unwillingness to negotiate after two proposals to fully reopen the government failed in the Senate on Thursday. “Everything’s on the table right now,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) “If one party’s not willing to negotiate, then we’ve got nowhere to go.”

In a Wednesday meeting at the White House with conservative leaders, Trump reassured his visitors that he would not yield to Democratic demands.

John Thune

In another sign of Trump’s apparent moderation, he has all but dropped his past threats to declare a national emergency, which would allow him to allocate money for a wall unilaterally, if Democrats would not accede to his demands. While White House aides and Republican lawmakers say such an executive action remains a possibility, Trump now prefers a negotiated solution, aides say. Moran said he’d heard “no discussions about a national emergency for several days.”

Some Republicans lawmakers have tried to dissuade Trump from that path. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been talking to Democrats all week, said there’s a “third way”: working it out in Congress. “It’s far better for us to come up with a solution. That’s where we’re headed, I hope,” Portman said.

In a conversation with Trump earlier this month, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said he “discouraged” the president from going in that direction. “It’s actually no way out of it. I think a national emergency may lead to the opening of the government but it certainly does not lead to construction,” Scott said.

And many conservatives fear that Trump would be obliged to support re-opening the government if he declares a national emergency, even though such a declaration might be blocked by federal courts, leaving the president with nothing to show for his efforts.

But the idea is not dead, Republicans say. “It’s never been off the table. It’s not my preferred route but I don’t think it would be the end of the Western order if it happens,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

Some Republicans believe that a national emergency declaration might be the only way to resolve the shutdown, especially given the scant support his position is winning among Senate Democrats.

That makes it seemingly impossible to get the seven or more Democrats Trump needs to pass border funding in the Senate. For now, the president seems able to count only on Manchin, one of few Congressional Democrats whom Trump views positively. Trump was reluctant to campaign against Manchin during last year’s midterm elections, telling aides en route to a campaign rally against Manchin’s Republican opponent: “I actually like Manchin.”

Manchin returned the favor on Thursday with his vote – and says if it takes endorsing a national emergency to reopen the government, he’ll back that too.

“The president’s emergency? Whatever it takes to open the government. I’m supporting whatever it takes,” Manchin said. Trump, in turn, praised him as a “wonderful man.”

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