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  • Writer's pictureMichael McAuliff

Democrats Will Bait Trump -- By Being Entirely Reasonable

No one really knows how this three-week negotiation over border security and getting the government funded for the rest of the year is going to work out.

President Donald Trump in a White House photo.
President Donald Trump in a White House photo.

But from talking to lawmakers on the Hill Monday evening, one thing theme sounded clear -- they all want to get it done, and get past the sorry chapter of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

But here's the catch. The president is Donald Trump.

Ask the lead Republican negotiator in the Senate, Richard Shelby of Alabama, whether he's optimistic the conference committee that starts work on Wednesday can craft a deal. Before getting to his answer, remember that Shelby recently told me in a conversation with his Senate Democratic counterpart, Pat Leahy, that the two of them could solve the problem in an afternoon. Shelby will be the vice chair of the conference committee. He knows the chair well, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

"Optimistic?" Shelby repeated when asked by reporters. "I'm cautious, guarded, anxious.... Up here, today, I think some of the atmosphere, the environment, has got to change a little bit to say, 'How do we get to yes?'"

"We've got to come together," he added. "The question is, will we?"

Shelby couldn't walk through the halls without getting stopped by reporters, and he said several different ways that he wanted to keep the focus on getting the government funded for the rest of the year. He didn't talk much about walls.

"Our first goal is to fund the government until Oct. 1, get that out of the way. If we can do some other substantive things, so be it," he said.

His words should give hope that indeed a funding package can come together without much drama, without 800,000 federal employees losing paychecks again. Democrats appear to be thinking the same way.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters Democrats would not be bargaining for something bigger, like protecting DACA recipients, in the talks. He said Democrats would be playing "small ball."

Similarly, a Democratic aide familiar with intentions on their side told me the Democratic negotiators see the best chance for success in excluding extraneous, contentious elements of immigration policy from the funding bill.

"I think this will be very narrowly focused, and that’s why we’re upbeat," the aide said. "There is no reason to believe that marrying a complex appropriations issue to an intractable authorizing issue is going to create a pathway for success — so keeping broader immigration policy out of it makes sense."

It is actually a long-held principle to keep policy out of appropriations, although Congress often violates that maxim and attaches riders to must-pass funding bills. In this case, after a damaging shutdown that lawmakers don't want to repeat, there are not a lot of people on Capitol Hill looking to push issues that might derail the process.

That includes Democrats, even though they came out of the shutdown battle on the winning side of public opinion, and could push for their issues from a position of strength. If Trump or GOP lawmakers balked, the public would most likely blame the Republicans again.

But, like Shelby, Democrats know the man at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue may not share an aversion to another bruising battle. Like Shelby, they qualify their hopefulness with an "if."

"If the White House allows this to be a good faith negotiation, we can figure out the funding piece," the aide said.

Democrats may even be willing to give Trump a small piece of what he could call a wall. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told reporters he'd be comfortable with putting 65 miles of pedestrian fencing along the Rio Grande on the table. He supported that back in June.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told reporters he's not down with a fence, but he supports all kinds of security enhancements to stop tunnels, boats, planes, even river-going submarines.

Yet, Trump has maintained his demand for much more extensive barriers, and he put chances of his signing a new funding bill at under 50 percent.

Tbat's the attitude that gives everyone pause.

From the Democrats' perspective, if Trump doesn't get in the way of a clean government-funding bill that improves border security, then they get exactly that -- a functioning government through Until Oct. 1, and better border security. They'd declare a win.

If he does block the deal because it's light on building walls, Democrats are keenly aware of how high Trump's disapproval ratings where soaring. Democrats will hold their high ground, and watch to see what new education Trump gets, to paraphrase Mitch McConnell, from a second kick of the mule.


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