WASHINGTON — Republicans debated the definition of the border wall that President Donald Trump is demanding to reopen the federal government as the shutdown entered its second week Sunday with both parties continuing to dig in and shift blame.
Days before the start of a new Congress — and Trump’s first experience with divided government — there were no signs of direct negotiations involving the president, Republicans, and Democrats to end the partial closure, affecting hundreds of thousands of increasingly anxious federal workers.
The conflict centers on Trump's wish for a physical wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, but even the nature of that demand became freshly mired in controversy after John Kelly, the outgoing White House chief of staff, said the administration had long since moved away from the concrete barrier Trump has often described in rapturous terms.
"To be honest, it's not a wall," Kelly told the Los Angeles Times for a story published Sunday, adding that "we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it." Recently, Trump has taken to describing a wall made of "steel slats."
"The wall has become a metaphor for border security. What we're talking about is a physical barrier where it makes sense," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who spoke to reporters after a White House lunch with Trump on Sunday. He emerged suggesting that the president might win over Democrats by trading wall funding for an extension of legal status for certain immigrants whom Trump has threatened to deport.
Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday morning that it was a "silly semantic argument" to debate what the border wall would be made of and sought to blame Democrats for refusing to compromise on the president's demand for billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars for a wall. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly said Mexico would pay for the wall.
"There may be a wall in some places. There may be steel slats. There may be technological enhancements," she said on Fox News Sunday. "But always saying wall or no wall is being very disingenuous and turning a complete blind eye to what is a crisis at the border."
A Trump-backed spending bill passed by House Republicans on Dec. 21 included more than $5 billion in border security funding that could be spent on a wall, but that measure has not gotten traction in the Senate, where Democrats have stood firm on holding wall funding to the current $1.3 billion level.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," said the Trump administration has "spent very little" of the $1.3 billion that Congress allotted for physical border security improvements earlier this year.
"He says he needs more, yet there's no plan (for) how the money is going to be spent or any analysis on what's most effective to secure the border," said Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security. "I think we can do it with technology and manpower, and much more effectively than with a wall."
To the extent that Republicans back off demands for a physical wall, that could open opportunities for compromise to break the impasse.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said congressional Democrats are "certainly prepared to provide additional funding for enhanced fencing, technology, drones, satellites, lighting, censors, cellphone towers and the things the experts have clearly indicated would improve our border security" but held firm against a physical wall.
"What Donald Trump and the Republicans want to do is waste $5 billion in taxpayer money on an ineffective medieval border wall that is a 5th century solution to a 21st century problem," he said on ABC's "This Week."
While those officials and others jousted on the Sunday television news programs, there was no effort at direct talks between the warring parties.
Trump tweeted Saturday that he was "in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security." Top Democrats, meanwhile, said they had made their position against additional wall funding known and awaited a counteroffer from Trump and Republicans.
“Our negotiations are at an impasse at the moment,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on “Face the Nation.” “I wish it were not so, but we’ve got to move away from the blame game. … If we blame each other, this could last a long, long time.”
Graham’s comments floating a potential broader deal on immigration represented the only public outreach to Democrats from a leading Republican. Under the terms Graham sketched out Sunday, young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, as well as those fleeing disaster- and war-torn countries who hold indefinite visas, could be temporarily protected from deportation in return for wall funding.
Trump has ordered an end to existing protection for the young immigrants, known as "Dreamers," and those seeking temporary refuge from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador, but federal courts have stopped those moves pending further appeals.
“There’s a deal to be had, I think,” Graham said, explaining that Trump “is willing to do some things to get what he wants.” But Democrats are wary of entering into any immigration deal with Trump after previous talks linking the fate of dreamers to wall funding collapsed.
Other Republicans this weekend kept their fire trained on Democrats, seeking to shift blame for the shutdown affecting about 800,000 federal workers. Democrats have faulted Trump and the GOP since a Dec. 11 Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders in which Trump declared that he would be “proud” to partially shutter the federal government over his border wall demands.
In a tweet Sunday, Trump referred to the "#SchumerShutdown," prompting pushback from the office of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
"At this point, it's clear the White House doesn't know what they want when it comes to border security," said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer. "While one White House official says they're willing to compromise, another says the president is holding firm at no less than $5 billion for the wall. Meanwhile, the president tweets blaming everyone but himself for a shutdown he called for more than 25 times."
Conway, speaking on Fox, said the onus was on Democrats to reopen negotiations and called on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — who is set to be elected speaker Thursday — to “come back from Hawaii” where she had vacationed last week with her family.
"Less hula, more moola" for the Department of Homeland Security, she said.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said she had returned from Hawaii to her home in San Francisco late last week and plans to return to Washington on Monday as she prepares to be sworn in for her 17th term and lead the new House Democratic majority.
He said she last spoke to Trump on Dec. 11, by phone hours after leaving the White House.
"Pelosi continues to urge the Republicans in charge of the House, Senate and White House to allow a vote to reopen government, and if they do not, Speaker Pelosi will on Jan. 3," he said.
But House Democrats alone will not be able to break the impasse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated last week he will not hold a vote on any spending plan that Trump will not sign, meaning a solution to the shutdown will depend on a deal between Trump and Democratic leaders.
“It’s a question of, when do we get off the blame game and we get to serious negotiations?” Shelby said. “It’s not a question of who wins or loses. Nobody’s going to win this kind of game. Nobody wins in a shutdown. We all lose. And we kind of look silly.”