Pelosi: Is there ‘common ground’ with Trump?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

One day last week, amid spiraling fallout over special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dialed up the president and requested a meeting.

She talked to President Donald Trump about working together on an infrastructure package.

It was the first phone call between the two since the testy days of the government shutdown earlier this year, and it seemed productive. They are planning to meet, she told The Associated Press in a Wednesday interview.

So goes the relationship between Washington’s two power centers — one in the White House, where Trump is slapping almost hourly at the investigations into his administration and running headlong into a climactic moment of his presidency, the other on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi is deliberately steering her gavel toward her party’s goals.

As the two cross the 100-day mark of the era of divided government, theirs is a relationship like almost none other in Washington.

Even as Trump derides Democrats as “unhinged” and claims they are a party taken over by “socialists,” he pulls his punches with Pelosi. And while Pelosi criticizes Trump as “unfit” for office — and hasn’t fully closed the door on impeachment — she wants to work with him on shared priorities.

She says 80 percent of their conversations, including the talk last Thursday, are about infrastructure. They’re trying, she said, to find areas of “common ground.”

Launching an infrastructure investment program is the kind of big bipartisan undertaking that seems all but impossible in times like these.

The Trump administration’s “infrastructure week” became a punchline around Washington when it fizzled amid the White House’s often shifting priorities. Trump promised on election night a $1 trillion investment in new roads and other projects but has never come close to achieving it. Democrats scoff at the $200 billion requests he’s made in his budget proposals as meager. Pelosi called it a “nonstarter.”

But infrastructure — like the effort on lowering prescription drug costs — is the kind of initiative that could benefit both of them as they head toward the 2020 campaign season. They could change the subject from the ongoing investigations that pose risks for both parties, and they could show voters they can deliver with building projects that improve communities and create jobs even at a time of divided government, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate.

“We want dirt to fly,” Pelosi said.

After her talks with Trump, Pelosi thinks the president may be willing to do more than he’s put on the table. Trump’s latest budget proposed $200 billion in federal dollars that could be leveraged with private capital to cover the difference.

“I don’t think the president is wedded to that proposal,” she said. “It’s too small.”

Most of their phone call last week revolved around infrastructure, and she said the intention is to “get a dollar figure” as a starting point for the discussions.

Asked about infrastructure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also left open the possibility of a fresh bipartisan effort.

“We’ve all been talking about infrastructure, including the president, for a couple of years now,” McConnell told Fox News on Wednesday. “We need some straight talk from both sides on how we’re going to pay for it.”

The day after Trump and Pelosi spoke, Trump went to California to visit the southern border, where he is trying to build a long-promised border wall with Mexico after Democrats thwarted his demand for more wall funds during the shutdown.

That afternoon, House Democrats filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s national emergency declaration, which he invoked to circumvent Congress and to use military construction money to pay for the border wall.

“It’s so very self-evident that the president is very different from every other person that anybody ever served with,” Pelosi said in the AP interview Wednesday.

“He is not only unique, he’s … what would be the word?” she said, trailing off. “To be president of the United States is to have a very special personality. But there are shared values about commitment to our Constitution, to the vision of our founders to the Constitution of the United States. I don’t see those features yet in this president.”

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Follow Mascaro on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lisamascaro

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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump starts a new border wall fight

President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget outline arrives on Capitol Hill at the House Budget Committee, in Washington, Monday morning March 11, 2019. Trump’s new budget calls for billions more for his border wall, with steep cuts in domestic programs but increases for military spending. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Donald Trump is reviving his border wall fight, preparing a new budget that will seek $8.6 billion for his signature project, impose steep spending cuts to other domestic programs and set the stage for another fiscal battle.

Budget documents like the one Trump is releasing Monday are often seen as just a starting point of negotiation. Fresh off the longest government shutdown in history, Trump’s 2020 proposal shows he is eager to confront Congress again to boost defense spending and cut $2.7 trillion in nondefense spending over a decade.

Titled “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First,” Trump’s proposal “embodies fiscal responsibility,” said Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Vought said the administration has “prioritized reining in reckless Washington spending” and shows “we can return to fiscal sanity.”

Speaking on CNBC Monday, Vought confirmed that the $8.6 billion border request was part of Trump’s spending blueprint for the 2020 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. It would pay for hundreds of miles of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Vought said “the border situation is deteriorating by the day” with “record numbers of apprehensions.”

An administration official said Trump’s budget proposes increasing defense spending to $750 billion — and standing up the new Space Force as a military branch — while reducing nondefense accounts by 5 percent, with cuts recommended to safety-net programs used by many Americans.

The plan sticks to budget caps that both parties have routinely broken in recent years and promises to come into balance in 15 years, relying in part on economic growth that may be uncertain.

The official was not authorized to discuss budget details publicly before Monday’s release of the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

While pushing down spending in some areas, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the proposal will seek to increase funding in others to align with the president’s priorities, according to one official.

The administration will invest more than $80 billion for veterans services, a nearly 10 percent increase from current levels, including “significant” investments in rehabilitation, employment assistance and suicide prevention.

It will also increase resources to fight the opioid epidemic with money for prevention, treatment, research and recovery, the administration said. And it seeks to shift some federal student loan costs to colleges and universities.

The proposal will also include $1 billion for a child care fund that would seek to improve access to care for underserved populations, a White House official confirmed. The one-time allocation is championed by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who has focused on economic advancement for women in her role as a White House adviser.

By adhering to strict budget caps, Trump is signaling a fight ahead. The president has resisted big, bipartisan budget deals that break the caps — threatening to veto one last year — but Congress will need to find agreement on spending levels to avoid another federal shutdown in fall. To stay within the caps, the budget shifts a portion of the defense spending to an overseas contingency fund, which some fiscal hawks will view as an accounting gimmick.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Trump’s budget “points a steady glide path” toward lower spending and borrowing as a share of the nation’s economy. He also told “Fox News Sunday” that there was no reason to “obsess” about deficits, and expressed confidence that economic growth would top 3 percent in 2019 and beyond. Others have predicted lower growth.

But the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, called the proposed cuts to essential services “dangerous.” He said Trump added nearly $2 trillion to deficits with the GOP’s “tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations, and now it appears his budget asks the American people to pay the price.”

The border wall, though, remains a signature issue for the president and is poised to stay at the forefront of his agenda, even though Congress has resisted giving him more money for it.

Leading Democrats immediately rejected the proposal.

“Congress refused to fund his wall and he was forced to admit defeat and reopen the government. The same thing will repeat itself if he tries this again,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. They said the money “would be better spent on rebuilding America.”

In seeking $8.6 billion for more than 300 miles of new border wall, the budget request would more than double the $8.1 billion already potentially available to the president for the wall after he declared a national emergency at the border last month in order to circumvent Congress — although there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to use that money if he faces a legal challenge, as is expected. The standoff over the wall led to a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

Along with border wall money, the proposed budget will also increase funding to increase the “manpower” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and Customs and Border Patrol at a time when many Democrats are calling for cuts — or even the elimination — of those areas. The budget also proposes policy changes to end sanctuary cities, the administration said.

The budget would arrive as the Senate readies to vote this week to terminate Trump’s national emergency declaration. The Democratic-led House already did so, and a handful of Republican senators, uneasy over what they see as an overreach of executive power, are expected to join Senate Democrats in following suit. Congress appears to have enough votes to reject Trump’s declaration but not enough to overturn a veto.

Trump invoked the emergency declaration after Congress approved nearly $1.4 billion for border barriers, far less than the $5.7 billion he wanted. In doing so, he can potentially tap an additional $3.6 billion from military accounts and shift it to building the wall. That’s causing discomfort on Capitol Hill, where even the president’s Republican allies are protective of their power to decide how to allocate federal dollars. Lawmakers are trying to guard money that’s already been approved for military projects in their states — for base housing or other improvements — for the wall. The administration is promising to backfill those funds, senators said.

The wall with Mexico punctuated Trump’s campaign for the White House, and it’s expected to again be featured in his 2020 re-election effort. He used to say Mexico would pay for it, but Mexico has refused to do so.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Palm Beach, Florida, and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Can GOP find a way out of Trump’s border wall mess?

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

One by one, the Republican senators floated their ideas. They were trying to find a way out of a seemingly impossible dilemma: how to support President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall without approving the national emergency declaration he invoked to build it.

And one by one, during a private lunchtime meeting that ran hot at times, they found no easy answers.

As a deadline for voting looms, it’s increasingly clear that Republican senators are deeply uncomfortable with Trump’s use of executive power to build the wall and desperate to devise a way around the vote.

Senators know whatever they decide will make history. It’s the first time Congress is voting to terminate a national emergency. Even if Trump vetoes the measure, as expected, it will set precedent for other money grabs by future occupants of the White House.

This is why they tried to talk Trump out of invoking national emergency powers and why they’re now in a no-win situation as they prepare to vote.

“People are caught between the need for border security — and agreeing with what the president’s trying to do — but not how he’s trying to do it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior-most Republican senator.

In the days ahead, senators will be required to vote on a resolution, already approved by Democrats in the House, to terminate Trump’s executive action.

Senate Republicans don’t have the votes to stop what Trump is doing, nor do they necessarily want to. Many of their constituents want the wall, and senators, especially those up for re-election in 2020, don’t want to run afoul of the president whose supporters they’ll need.

But they’re trying at least to provide some distance between Trump’s effort to build the wall and what many see as executive overreach that could echo for years to come.

Trump, in a speech Saturday to conservatives, said: “A lot of people talk about precedent, precedent, that if we do this the Democrats will use national emergency powers for something we don’t want. They are going to do that anyway folks. The best way to stop that is to make sure I win the election.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, presented colleagues during the lunchtime meeting with a proposal to revisit the 1976 National Emergencies Act, clawing back some of the authority Congress ceded decades ago that paved the way for Trump’s action.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been working on a plan suggesting Trump could do away with his declaration completely by simply repurposing existing money to build the wall rather than invoking the emergency orders to take more dollars.

Other senators are swapping other ideas.

“This has been a little bit of a wake-up call,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership.

Cornyn said most lawmakers were simply not aware that Congress over the years has been “so willing to delegate our authority” to the president. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some changes are made,” he said.

A guiding touchstone for some has been to draw on the principles of a conservative giant: What would the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia do?

Republicans have railed against executive reach long before Trump. They criticized President Barack Obama’s executive actions, particularly those involving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that shielded young immigrants in the country illegally, known as Dreamers, from deportation.

Now, though, Republicans are loath to allow Trump to go even further, by encroaching on the authority the Constitution specifically grants Congress for appropriating funds.

Trump’s declaration allows him to dip into billions of Defense Department dollars for already-approved military construction projects and shift that money, along with other funds, toward the border wall. Senators worry what the next presidents will do, invoking such power grabs for Democratic priorities to fight climate change or lessen the strains of income inequality.

“Many folks don’t like the idea of the precedent it sets, but they realize it’s the centerpiece of President Trump’s (2016 campaign) – what he ran on – and it causes a little bit of heartburn,” said Sen. Mike Braun, a newly elected conservative from Indiana.

“I kind of would fall in that camp,” he said. Braun said he probably will back the president. He supports Trump and believes there’s a crisis on the border. But he said the reach of executive authority does “give you pause.”

Senators are quickly running into the procedural roadblocks that show how difficult it will be to change course.

Because the resolution is a first of its kind, efforts to alter it are posing all sorts of parliamentary questions that have yet to be answered. Even if the senators can agree with an alternative plan, they’ll also have to clear the procedural hurdles that so far have been high. And, for now, it’s unclear if they can come up with an idea that does both.

“There’re procedural problems that we haven’t figured out yet,” Cornyn acknowledged.

When Vice President Mike Pence and administration officials visited senators privately on Tuesday to buck up support for Trump’s action, it provoked a lively discussion.

The White House officials made the case for the border emergency and insisted Trump’s action would not open the floodgates for future presidents to take similar steps for their priorities.

The senators peppered the vice president with questions. And the next day at their own private lunch — and in public — they started airing their work arounds.

“Everybody’s blaming the president,” Grassley said. “The president doesn’t deserve any blame. Congress delegated this authority to him. So we’re delegating away our legislative authority. We’ve probably done too much of it.”

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro has covered Congress since 2010.

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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Republicans proved they don’t really want Trump’s wall

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, joined by Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., center, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., right, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the top Senate border security negotiator, speaks to reporters about the bipartisan compromise worked out last night to avert another government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republicans in Congress never really wanted to build the wall.

It wasn’t a priority like tax cuts, which are a raison d’être of Republican domestic policy. And it wasn’t their own campaign pledge to voters, like the vow to repeal and replace Obamacare that became hard to keep.

President Donald Trump’s signature campaign rally cry — “Build the Wall!” — was always more of a slogan than a policy. A “metaphor,” Republicans have called it — shorthand for the more complicated trade-offs that would be required for an immigration-and-border security deal. A “MacGuffin,” as one former top GOP aide put it Tuesday, only there to motivate action — in Trump’s case, for support.

That’s why funding the wall languished when Republicans controlled Congress, and why they now appear willing to take far less than the $5.7 billion Trump demanded in a deal with Democrats to prevent another partial government shutdown.

Alfonso Aguilar, a Department of Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush administration, said Trump’s wall became so “toxic” it drove away support. Even routine funding for border barriers and fences that have anchored security policy for more than a decade — some 700 miles already being built— became off limits.

“The problem is the president only talks about the big, beautiful wall,” said Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

And for Trump, he said, that quickly becomes a launching point to rail against drug smugglers and human traffickers in caravans at the border, though it’s clear that the vast majority of immigrants trying to enter the country illegally are not such criminals.

“The language hurts Trump,” Aguilar said. “What we didn’t like was the tone about the wall.”

Of course Republicans want to secure the borders. Both parties do. But they have different views on how to do it. And more importantly for counting votes in the House and Senate, they diverge on how much to pay for it and what other immigration changes to swap in return.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, recalled an early conversation when he asked Trump on the presidential campaign trail: ”‘You understand it’s way more complex than just building a wall?’ He said he understood that.”

Michael Steel, a top aide to then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the party agrees that border security should be a priority in Congress. But he said, “no one believes a Great Wall of China-style edifice along the Rio Grande is the answer to our problems.”

It was against that backdrop late last year Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, about to take majority control of the House and become speaker, held firm against Trump’s demands and called the wall immoral. Democrats reminded voters that Trump once promised Mexico would pay for it.

Pelosi all but dared Republicans to show their cards, essentially taunting Trump during a meeting at the White House in December that he did not have the votes to support his demand for billions of dollars of wall money.

She had a point. Republicans had not pushed their bill forward during two years of control of the House and the Senate as well as the White House, partly because the GOP budget hawks would balk at the spending and centrists wouldn’t want to fund the wall without addressing other immigration provisions, including deportations for young immigrants in the U.S. illegally, known as “Dreamers.”

To prove Pelosi wrong, House Republicans quickly muscled Trump’s $5.7 billion border wall money to passage as one of the final votes of their majority. GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy and others took a victory lap.

But the Republican success was short-lived. The bill went nowhere in the Senate and Congress left town for the Christmas holidays, sparking what would become a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

On Tuesday, Trump said he wasn’t “thrilled” with the compromise to prevent another shutdown, which would begin on Saturday. The bipartisan budget deal emerging in Congress provides nearly $1.4 billion for barriers and fencing, but no new money for the wall.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged Trump to hold off any decisions until he read through the details of the package. The GOP leader called it a “pretty good deal.”

A top Republican negotiator, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, put it this way: “We’re going to build a structure. And we’re going to secure America.”

Trump has not said whether he will support the deal, but he appeared to have already moved on to the next fight. As the agreement was coming together Monday night behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, the president was test driving a new campaign slogan at a rally with thousands in the border city of El Paso, Texas.

When the crowd erupted with the build-the-wall chant, Trump offered a new one, for his 2020 re-election campaign.

“You really mean ‘finish the wall,’” he said, “because we built it.”

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