Opinion writer

As Americans watch the federal government remain (partially) shut down and the president lob angry accusations at the opposition, a common response is, “Why can’t they all just sit down and work this out?” It seems like a reasonable question — if this were a different time and we were dealing with a different president. But since Donald Trump is in the White House, everything is more complicated.

So the only answer may be for everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, to ignore President Trump. Act as though he doesn’t exist and this has nothing to do with him.

By which I mean that members of Congress should shut their ears to Trump’s tweets and threats and fulminations, pass something that House Democrats and Senate Republicans can live with, and then dare Trump to veto it. Because I doubt he has the guts.

Negotiating with Trump might be impossible, not only because he’s committed to a border wall that Democrats won’t accept, but also because he changes his mind so frequently that his word just can’t be trusted. He could say in the morning that he’ll sign a particular compromise, then decide by the afternoon that he won’t because Sean Hannity doesn’t like it. He’ll have to agree to something eventually, but the only way forward might be to cut him out of the process until the end, then force his hand.

Where we stand now is that Paul Ryan and other Republicans have decided to stop trying to arrive at a solution and just leave town, meaning things won’t get resolved until Democrats take over the House next week. Democrats are considering a few options (a very short-term bill, a somewhat short-term bill, a longer-term bill), but they are refusing to offer any more than the $1.3 billion in extra border security funds they’ve already put on the table. So here’s where we are now:

Earlier Saturday, Vice President Pence visited Schumer for what has been the last face-to-face bipartisan talks, a brief meeting at which Pence made a new offer that included about half of Trump’s original request for $5 billion in wall funding. Democrats rejected that, still holding firm that no funds go toward a wall, and they also accused Pence of not being capable of guaranteeing the president’s support for his negotiating.

“Different people from the same White House are saying different things about what the president would accept or not accept,” Pelosi and Schumer said Wednesday in a joint statement.

Trump’s position is a critical roadblock to any negotiating. Democrats do not want to support something presented by Pence, only to have Trump balk at the idea and then move the goal posts farther right because of the apparent Democratic concession.

That might sound like gamesmanship on the Democrats' part, but they’re right: Nobody knows what Trump is going to accept, and nobody can speak for him. He changes his mind so often that he himself doesn’t even know what he’ll accept. Even Republicans are getting exasperated:

And congressional Republicans are adamant that they will not get caught flat-footed like last week, when the Senate unanimously approved a temporary funding plan to keep the entire government open through Feb. 8, only to learn later that Trump would veto the bill because it did not have funds for a wall.

“It’s clear that we on the Republican side, we do not want to vote for a bill that the president won’t sign,” [Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)] said.

That’s perfectly understandable, but since it is impossible for anyone to know what the president will sign, the only real option is to cut him and the White House out of the process. House Democrats should sit down with Senate Republicans and work out their own compromise.

And we know what it will look like. It will have more money for border security — personnel, equipment, repairs to existing fencing — but not a wall. Republicans will say they worked to secure the border, and Democrats will say they held firm against the wall. It's not complicated.

Once the bill is passed by both houses, they’ll send it to Trump’s desk and force him to make a final decision: Sign this or veto it. It’s one thing to threaten vetoes and proclaim that you won’t sign anything if you don’t get what you want; it’s something else entirely to stand against both parties and veto a real compromise that everyone else is behind.

This plan of shutting out the White House requires only one person's cooperation: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If he were to decide it's the best way forward, he and Nancy Pelosi could work out the details in an afternoon. Fortunately, McConnell is utterly unemotional and completely cynical. He doesn't particularly care about whether Trump is happy, or whether the president gets a "win." McConnell's only real concern is maintaining his own, and the GOP's, hold on power in the Senate. If he decides that the best way to do that is to end this shutdown and dial back the state of permanent crisis, that's what he'll do.

As I argued on Thursday, in the end, Trump will have to find a way to save face if he’s going to sign a funding bill. Perhaps Democrats and Republicans in Congress could make that more likely by announcing that once the government funding bill is out of the way, they’ll begin work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, one that might include walls in some places if it’s combined with permanent status for “dreamers.” That would give Trump something to point to, so he can tell his base that the wall is on its way.

But there’s just no way that any negotiation in which Trump is involved can succeed. So if it is going to reopen the government, Congress needs to ignore him.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Trump did what he always does and changed his mind. Why was Congress surprised?

Paul Waldman: An end to the shutdown depends entirely on Trump’s hurt feelings

Dana Milbank: Thank you for calling the White House. We aren’t functioning at the moment.

Carter Eskew: A lesson for Pelosi and Schumer: Never wrestle with a pig

Henry Olsen: Another government shutdown … and another good gamble by Trump