WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats have backed out of a scheduled meeting with President Donald Trump, saying they will focus instead on negotiating directly with top Republican leaders to avoid a federal shutdown.
The decision by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to not meet with Trump came a few hours after he signaled in an early-morning tweet that he is unlikely to bend to requests by Democrats in talks over how much more money the federal government may spend in the coming years and on pressing concerns regarding immigration and health care.
Government funding is scheduled to dry up pon Dec. 8, and Republicans and Democrats are already floating the possibility of passing a short-term spending bill that wouldl push negotiations until just before Christmas.
"Meeting with 'Chuck and Nancy' today about keeping government open and working. Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don't see a deal!" Trump tweeted.
In response, Schumer and Pelosi said that "rather than going to the White House for a show meeting that won't result in an agreement," they've asked to meet alone with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
"If the president, who already said earlier this year that 'our country needs a good shutdown,' isn't interested in addressing the difficult year-end agenda, we'll work with those Republicans who are," they said.
Trump has explicitly threatened a government shutdown already twice this year and dangled the possibility again in his Tuesday morning tweet.
Aides for McConnell and Ryan didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump's huddle with the "big four" was scheduled to start a few hours after he is scheduled to attend a Senate Republican lunch meeting at the U.S. Capitol to shore up support for his party's tax reform plans.
Among Democrats, there is growing resolve to withhold support for a spending plan that fails to address the fate of the so-called "dreamers." But on Tuesday, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who represents a swing district in southern Florida, became the first GOP lawmaker to say that he also will withhold his support for a spending bill that funds the government into next year if a solution for dreamers hasn't been enacted.
Trump announced in September that he is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that granted temporary legal status to roughly 600,000 young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. He has given Congress until March to enact a permanent fix or risk mass deportations.
Bipartisan proposals providing permanent legal status to eligible dreamers would permit them to stay in the country, but not allow illegal immigrants to flood into the United States as Trump suggested Tuesday.
The top of the agenda at the White House meeting was likely to be federal spending levels. Currently, Congress may spend no more than $549 billion for defense programs and $516 billion for nondefense programs next year, a cut from current levels.
But the Trump administration and defense hawks want to boost defense spending to more than $600 billion, and Democrats are demanding a dollar-for-dollar increase in nondefense spending. In a sign of how serious Republicans are about boosting Pentagon spending, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was expected to attend the meeting, according to aides.
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Monday that the West Wing is "anxious to find a path forward on budget caps" that would pave the way for a long-term government spending bill.
With Republicans in total control of Washington, Democrats are insisting on adding such policy issues to any spending bill to win their support. Given that House Republicans have needed Democrats to help pass spending bills in recent years amid opposition from fiscal conservatives and because Senate Democrats can filibuster spending legislation, Schumer and Pelosi believe they have leverage to force a deal.
Previewing the meeting Monday, Schumer cited spending levels, immigration policy and the need to renew programs such as the Children's Health Insurance Program as top priorities in the closing days of the year.
"Hopefully we can make progress on an agreement that covers those time-sensitive issues that keeps the government running and working," he said in Senate floor remarks.
A senior Democratic aide familiar with planning for the meeting said that Democrats will maintain influence over negotiations in the coming weeks. "This meeting wouldn't be happening if they had the votes on their own," said the aide, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly.
In the weeks leading up to Trump's last meeting with the top four congressional leaders in September, his frustration with his own party's top officials was boiling over.
Senate GOP leaders had just fumbled attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, leaving a long-held GOP priority unfulfilled. The meeting yielded an agreement that set up a short-term spending agreement - allowing Democrats to crow about how they maintained their negotiating leverage and Republicans to use the ensuing months to work on a bigger priority, tax reform.
While many tensions remain raw in the GOP, Trump has sharpened his attacks on Democrats in recent weeks. In the closely watched Alabama Senate race, Trump has warned on social media that voters "can't let Schumer/Pelosi win this race," as he has tried to cut into support for Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
At least three Democratic senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont - all of whom are potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 - have said they would vote against the spending plan if it doesn't include protections for dreamers. Other potential Democratic presidential contenders, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have suggested that they might also withhold support.
In the House, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus - who account for 28 of the 194 House Democrats - are expected to decide by the end of this week whether they will vote no against spending bills without an agreement to protect dreamers, according to caucus members and their aides. If they do, aides expect most if not all members of the congressional Black and Asian and Pacific Islander caucuses to join in opposition. Dozens of other Democrats might also vote no - representing more than half of the caucus.
But Republicans remain insistent that establishing the parameters of a government spending bill that extends beyond elections next November should be the top priority for Tuesday's meeting.
"You don't want to have a spending showdown shutdown crisis before the midterms next year. So I think it's important for both sides, honestly, to reach that agreement," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close ally of House GOP leaders.
Cole said he expected the president to "trust his instincts" during the negotiation, and he warned Democrats against holding up a spending bill over pressure to reach an immigration deal.
If "you try to hold the entire government hostage to a single issue," Cole said, there's a risk of making the "same mistake Republicans made in 2013 over Obamacare. It's very apt to backfire."
Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act in 2013 led to a government shutdown that the public widely blamed on the GOP.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., an outspoken conservative lawmaker, said Monday that he supported Ryan's calls not to include a DACA solution in the spending plan.
"Congress should pass single-subject legislation, which maximizes the transparency of our votes to constituents. It would be a grave mistake to add DACA reform to the spending bill," Biggs said in a statement, adding that a separate immigration measure should include money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Asked what he hoped Tuesday meeting's would yield, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters, "I hope a year-end solution, a pathway to making sure you guys are home on Christmas Eve instead of hanging out here with us."