Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, the self-professed deal-maker, once again has dealt a setback to a bipartisan legislative deal — this time with potentially significant consequences: the threat of a government shutdown.

Hours before a scheduled Oval Office meeting with congressional leaders to discuss a packed year-end agenda of must-pass measures, Trump on Twitter excoriated Democrats "Chuck and Nancy" — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — and falsely claimed that their demands include higher taxes and "unchecked" immigration. "I don't see a deal!" he added.

Schumer, of New York, and Pelosi, from San Francisco, quickly responded by pulling out of the meeting. In a joint statement, they said, "We don't have any time to waste" on an apparently pointless "show meeting" with Trump and would continue to negotiate with Republican leaders instead.

Schumer later said he would return to the table with Trump only if the president stopped being a "destructive force."

While Democrats were Trump's targets on Tuesday, congressional Republicans, too, have felt the sting of the president's sometimes capricious style and tweets. The result is that, over Trump's first year, many lawmakers in both parties are left distrustful of him as a negotiating partner.

Trump did seem to help make a tentative deal with fellow Republicans on Tuesday, agreeing to demands that allowed Senate Republicans to pass their tax cuts package in the Senate Budget Committee.

Yet even that progress, which did not ensure victory in the full Senate, underscored the limits of Trump's deal-making. For months, he had promised to persuade some Democrats to work with him on the tax bill but he has not, giving Republicans little margin for error.

Republicans well remember other times when Trump has undercut them. Perhaps most memorable was a White House meeting with congressional leaders in September, which Schumer and Pelosi attended.

Then, Trump blindsided Republican leaders by agreeing to a tentative budget deal with the two Democrats to keep the government funded through Dec. 8 and to include in the next funding bill — the one at issue now — some compromise language protecting from deportation so-called Dreamers brought to the country illegally as children.

In May, after bringing House Republicans to the Rose Garden to celebrate passage of their bill that would roll back much of the Affordable Care Act, Trump called the bill "mean" once it reached the Senate, undermining its supporters. The bill died in the Senate, given a few Republicans' opposition there.

On Tuesday, Trump tried to capitalize on the Democrats' snub, bringing reporters into a White House meeting room to photograph him sitting between two empty chairs with Schumer's and Pelosi's names on place cards. The Republican leaders who typically sit in those prime seats — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin — sat on the far ends of the table.

"So they decided not to show up," Trump said of the Democrats. "They've been all talk and they've been no action," he said, "and now it's even worse. Now, it's not even talk."

Trump's theatrical broadside seemed to channel his own advice from his 1987 book, "The Art of the Deal," in which Trump, then a New York real estate investor, wrote: "The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you're dead."

But in Washington, where lawmakers have honed ways to use negotiating leverage over decades of legislative battles, Trump runs the risk of alienating partners he needs to move his agenda forward. And he needs Democrats in coming weeks as much as at any time in his presidency.

Though Republicans control both chambers of Congress, they will have to win some Democrats' votes to pass an essential bill to keep the government funded and operating beyond Dec. 8, because a significant number of Republicans refuse to support any spending measure. For years that has given Democrats leverage, and now they want concessions including for immigrant Dreamers.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, noted that it will take 60 votes in the Senate to pass the spending bill. "We have 52 Republicans. We can't do it by ourselves," he said.

Democrats are also trying to win more money for disaster relief and children's health care — both items that some Republicans also support — as well as for domestic programs generally.

Trump quickly sought to blame Democrats, pre-emptively, for any shutdown.

"If it happens I would absolutely blame the Democrats," he told reporters, adding that a failure to fund the government would be over "illegals pouring into the country."

Congressional Republicans, too, are hoping they can blame Schumer and Pelosi, but many know they are likely to own blame if there is a shutdown, given their hold on power in both Congress and the White House — and the political history of such standoffs. After government shutdowns in the mid-1990s and 2013, though a Democrat was president each time, polls showed that most Americans blamed Republicans for obstructing action.

Trump, in May, may have made it hard for him and his party to blame Democrats if it comes to that, by seeming to root for a government closure. "Our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!" he tweeted.

"He's basically calling for a shutdown here so obviously that's going to fall on Republicans," said Jose Dante Parra, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a liberal immigrant advocacy group, predicted that on the must-pass government funding bill, Pelosi and Schumer would be successful in using their leverage. "This was a photo-op meeting that Trump misread," he said.

McConnell told reporters, "I never refused to go to a meeting that President Obama called. It never occurred to me." He added that Schumer and Pelosi showed a "lack of seriousness" in declining to attend. (In fact, Republicans refused one Obama invitation in 2010 for a meeting and private dinner, forcing him to reschedule it; McConnell, on the original date, attended a dinner of the conservative Federalist Society instead.)

Michael Steel, a former House Republican leadership aide, said Schumer and Pelosi were using Trump's morning tweet as a "convenient excuse to do what they wanted to do in the first place, which is duck taking responsibility for anything at all."

Steel said lawmakers are still adjusting to the unpredictability of the first president in history who has served in neither government nor the military.

"He is learning to govern on the job," Steel said, "and everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, is dealing with that learning curve."

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(Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to his report.)