WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has done something remarkable in the government shutdown: He’s unified the diverse new House Democratic majority firmly behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It’s not even about the wall at this point. Democrats are sticking together with an unusual amount of unity as a way to strengthen Pelosi’s hand and set a tone in the new Congress that Trump can’t simply demand $5.7 billion — using federal workers as leverage — to get his long-promised border wall with Mexico, or anything else on his wish list.
“People do understand that this is no longer just about the wall, it’s about how Donald Trump operates with the Democratic majority in the House,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington.
“If we give into him on this, what happens if he wants to cut Social Security or Medicare or end legal migration or cut food stamps?” she asked. “Do we allow him to take us hostage for anything he wants?”
Pelosi, she said, is already proving herself to be a “strong” speaker, unlike her recent Republican predecessors. “She’s also not afraid of him.”
As the shutdown crisis begins a second month, the White House believes it’s Democrats who will feel pressure to cave. Services are being disrupted and 800,000 federal workers are likely to miss another paycheck Friday. Republicans doubt all Democrats back Pelosi’s view of the wall as immoral.
Trump told state and local officials on a conference call Wednesday, “Democrats are lousy politicians in many ways, they’re lousy politicians and they have lousy policy, the only thing they do well is stick together.”
The White House is eagerly watching Thursday’s Senate votes on two bills to end the shutdown. Officials think it will be harder for Democrats to keep sticking together amid Trump’s offers, according a person familiar with White House thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly. They are hopeful for defections by Democrats who may cross party lines to vote with the president. Trump is asking for $5.7 billion for the wall in exchange for some temporary protections for immigrants facing deportations.
Back in the House, Democratic unity was never a given. In fact, Pelosi won the speaker’s race only after a brutal campaign that overcame dissent from her members. When the new Congress convened in the new year, 13 days into the partial shutdown, lawmakers meeting behind closed doors openly worried.
They asked Pelosi: What was the strategy? The message? How were they going to end this?
One prominent freshman, Rep. Abigail Spangberger, D-Virginia, stood up at one early meeting to voice concerns.
Leadership swooped in, churning out talking points to help lawmakers explain the Democratic position: Open up the government and then negotiations can begin on border security.
They provided outlines of border policies that Democrats support — improved fencing and technology, more personnel. It’s what they refer to as a “21st century” border security system, unlike the old-fashioned wall. They are holding votes to open government and preparing their own border security plan with more than $1 billion in new border security funding.
Part of the problem from the start of the shutdown was many new members didn’t even have staff hired or district offices, creating logistical challenges to even be able to communicate with them, aides said.
Leaders sent lawmakers home last weekend with action plans. One suggestion was to meet with furloughed federal workers or Transportation Security Administration airport screeners being forced to work without pay and share their stories. Another was to visit food pantries to show the reach of the shutdown on ordinary Americans. Many Democrats did just that.
This week, as Democrats met behind closed doors, with polling showing Trump taking most of the blame for the shutdown, the caucus stood largely as one.
“Understand the impact of the unity of our caucus,” Pelosi told them, according to an aide in the room unauthorized to discuss the private meeting by name.
Pelosi recounted her own experience, from more than decade ago, during the fight she and then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid waged against George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security.
“Week-in and week-out, we had to say to our group, ‘Stick with the plan,’” she told them, which was to remain united as Democrats to preserve Social Security, as is. It was a lesson for today.
“And so, what we are saying is, open up government. And then we can discuss,” she told them. “Everything is on the table.”
While the caucus is on board with Pelosi’s strategy, some Democrats remain wary of holding out against Trump’s border wall. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, said he’d “give Trump the money” but wanted to make sure it was well spent.
“Why are we fighting over this?” he said on KFGO Radio.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, a newly elected member, drafted a letter to House leaders seeking a quick reopening of government while talks continue. It sent a message to leadership that patience isn’t infinite.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, another freshman Democrat, signed Luria’s letter, saying, “We need to work together we need to open the government and then those kinds of conversations that need to be happening about national security border protection can happen.”
Still fresh in many lawmakers’ minds is the dysfunction in the House during the Republican majority under Speaker Paul Ryan, and before that under John Boehner. Repeatedly, conservatives from the Freedom Caucus broke ranks during key legislative fights, leaving GOP leadership weakened without the strength of the full caucus behind them.
Democrats say they don’t want to undermine Pelosi and want to bolster her power to go toe to toe with Trump.
“While people don’t agree with everything Nancy says … they see what the guy on Pennsylvania Avenue, how divisive he is. He’s not necessarily a guy that’s trying to unify the country,” said Rep. John Larson, D-Connecticut. He said the “anger” and “absurdity” of Trump trying to leverage the shutdown — “that’s the unifying element that has kept everybody together.”
It doesn’t hurt that polling is on Democrats’ side. A strong majority of Americans blame Trump for the record-long government shutdown and reject his primary rationale for a border wall, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Sixty percent of Americans say Trump bears a great deal of responsibility for the shutdown. About a third place the same amount of blame on congressional Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (36 percent), according to the survey.
“By any reasonable-person standard we’re trying our best to do the mature thing,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who earlier joined a group challenging Pelosi for speaker but now turns his criticism toward Trump. “This is the great deal maker, right? He stinks at making deals.”
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic whip in charge of rounding up votes, said holding Democrats together hasn’t been so great a challenge.
“People know that this president that we currently have is not on the up and up,” he said. “It’s easy when you got that.”
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Jill Colvin and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.