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Congressional Democrats turn up the heat on GOP over shutdown

On the 14th day of the government shutdown House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) visited the White House. (Video: Reuters)

Democrats moved on two fronts Monday to goad Republicans into reopening the federal government, lining up House bills to fund shuttered agencies and preparing to block action in the Senate until the shutdown is resolved.

The moves amounted to an increasingly calculated and confrontational strategy from congressional Democrats as the shutdown over President Trump’s demand for money for a wall on the Mexican border entered its third week. But Trump showed no sign of relenting, announcing a prime-time address for Tuesday night and making plans to visit the border, as his administration sought to make the case that an immigration crisis is unfolding that must be addressed with a wall.

Neither side has shown any inclination to compromise and instead has looked to penalize the other for not caving.

President Trump on Jan. 6 reiterated his argument for building a wall on the southern border, saying, "We have a crisis at the border." (Video: The Washington Post)

In a joint statement Monday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats must be given equal airtime to rebut Trump, who, “if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation.” They reiterated their call for Trump and Senate Republicans to reopen the government while Congress debates the “expensive and ineffective wall.”

“The facts are clear: President Trump has the power to stop hurting the country by reopening the government and ending the Trump Shutdown,” Pelosi and Schumer said.

The impacts of the shutdown were widening after a weekend of fitful staff-level negotiations at the White House yielded no result. Some 800,000 federal workers are about to miss paychecks, and money for programs including food stamps and federal housing assistance is at risk of drying up after funding for a quarter of the government ran out Dec. 22.

In the House, convening for its first full week under Democratic control, leaders plan to advance several individual spending bills to fund federal agencies, beginning Wednesday with legislation that would reopen the Treasury Department and the IRS. The bill covering the IRS was scheduled to come up first after reports that tax refunds could be an early casualty of the shutdown, but the White House announced Monday that the IRS would seek a way to pay refunds during the shutdown, in a break with past policy.

Millions face delayed tax refunds, cuts to food stamps as White House scrambles to deal with shutdown’s consequences

With a handful of Republicans in the House and the Senate having broken with the administration’s strategy of keeping the government partially shut during the fight over the wall, House Democrats’ approach of bringing up individual spending bills could serve to further divide the GOP as the shutdown drags on.

“It’s so urgent that we take steps to reopen parts of the government that directly affect working families, and that’s why we’re doing it bill by bill,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in an interview Monday.

“There are some Republicans that are very sensitive to their districts and their needs, and when they are not getting what they are entitled to, and when there’s a problem with food and nutrition programs, and transportation, housing, the safe drinking water initiative — I would think that some Republicans would say, ‘Maybe this is not the right way to do it,’ ” Lowey said.

Passage of the Treasury spending bill would be followed Thursday and Friday with House votes on bills to fund the Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development departments, which together oversee programs including food stamps, housing vouchers, assistance to farmers and traffic safety.

The White House has rejected House Democrats’ approach, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has insisted repeatedly that he will not bring up any bill in the Senate that does not have Trump’s support. That means the Democratic bills could ultimately go nowhere, but several Democrats said Monday that they would not back down from their approach or give in to Trump’s demands for money for the wall, and instead would continue to push legislation to reopen the bulk of the government while setting aside the wall fight.

“If they have to vote on this over and over and over again, they have to deal with the consequences of what they’re doing to the American public,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). “We have stated our position. We want to open government. We have provided a number of ways to do that. But it’s time now for the president and his administration to take the full import of the consequences of his actions.”

Last week, seven House Republicans broke ranks and voted with Democrats on a package of appropriations bills that would have reopened most of the government without funding the wall; the number could have been higher but for personal intervention by Vice President Pence, who called some Republicans to urge them to vote no on the bills.

Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen planned to visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to brief House Republicans ahead of this week’s votes, part of an effort by the administration to keep Republicans in line and make the case for spending $5.7 billion to build more than 200 miles of wall along the border.

Pence also will meet with Senate Republicans on Wednesday.

“Our position is there is a crisis on our southern border, we’ve been negotiating to open the government and address that border crisis, we’re also taking steps to mitigate the effects of the shutdown,” Pence told reporters at a briefing Monday.

Asked about Republicans who have expressed a desire to advance spending bills to reopen the government without funding the wall, Pence said: “When they see the scope of this crisis, when they see the facts presented, they understand why the president is so adamant about doing something meaningful to advance border security. We’ll just continue educating members.”

This week’s action in the House will be coupled with a new Democratic strategy in the Senate, where Democrats are coalescing behind a plan to block any legislation on the floor that doesn’t reopen the federal government.

Privately, Schumer (D-N.Y.) has told his caucus that he would vote against advancing the first bill on the Senate floor this year, a measure that would authorize security assistance to Israel and includes provisions aimed at promoting security in the Middle East.

Democrats plan to vote against the measure to pressure McConnell to pass legislation funding the government, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss party strategy.

A growing coalition of Senate Democrats — primarily including those from states that have large populations of federal workers, as well as a contingent eyeing 2020 presidential bids — say the chamber should not vote on anything else until the shutdown ends. Those tactics were first proposed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). 

“The Senate should vote on nothing else until we vote to reopen the government. Period,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) tweeted Monday. “This shutdown is squeezing the finances of so many Americans, including thousands of federal workers who live in Virginia. As leaders, we can’t just whistle past the graveyard of this crisis.” 

The Democratic senators who have endorsed Van Hollen’s strategy include his fellow senator from Maryland, Benjamin L. Cardin, along with Mark R. Warner (Va.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. 

They are supported by liberal outside groups, including the Center for American Progress, Indivisible and the AFL-CIO, although the strategy hasn’t been backed caucus-wide

“I almost never use these types of procedures, but this is extraordinary to be meeting like this while a good part of the government is shut down,” Cardin said Monday in an interview.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said, “It would be a stunning reversal for Sen. Schumer to suddenly block security assistance to Israel simply because he can’t work out his differences with President Trump on an unrelated matter.”

Although the shutdown’s effects will only increase the longer it continues, many Democrats, even those representing large contingents of federal workers, say they are not feeling pressure thus far to capitulate or compromise with Trump. The president long claimed that Mexico would pay for the border wall, something that country has consistently said it will not do.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said his voters don’t want him to give in and give Trump wall money so they can get their paychecks and go back to work.

“He’s put himself in this box. It’s a political stunt, it always was,” Connolly said. “And I think it’s highly irresponsible for Congress to write a check, a $6 billion check, in effect to help him get out of the corner he’s boxed himself into with this political stunt.”

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.