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Congressional Democrats turn up the heat on GOP over shutdown

From left, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., leave a meeting with President Donald Trump on Friday. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - Democrats moved on two fronts Monday to goad Republicans into reopening the federal government, lining up a series of House bills to fund shuttered agencies and preparing to block action in the Senate until the shutdown is resolved.

The moves amounted to an increasingly calculated and confrontational strategy from congressional Democrats as the shutdown over President Donald Trump's demands for money for a wall on the Mexican border entered its third week. But Trump showed no sign of relenting, announcing a prime-time address for Tuesday night and making plans to visit the border, as his administration sought to make the case that an immigration crisis is unfolding that must be addressed with a wall.

Neither side has shown any inclination to compromise and instead looked to penalize the other for not caving.

In a joint statement Monday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats must be given equal airtime to rebut Trump, who, "if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation." They reiterated their call for Trump and Senate Republicans to reopen the government while Congress debates the "expensive and ineffective wall."

"The facts are clear: President Trump has the power to stop hurting the country by reopening the government and ending the Trump Shutdown," Pelosi and Schumer said.

The impacts of the shutdown were widening after a weekend of fitful staff-level negotiations at the White House yielded no result. Some 800,000 federal workers are about to miss their first paycheck, and money for programs including food stamps and federal housing assistance is at risk of drying up after funding for a quarter of the government ran out Dec. 22.

In the House, convening for its first full week under Democratic control, leaders plan to advance a series of individual spending bills to fund federal agencies, beginning Wednesday with legislation that would reopen the Treasury Department and the IRS. The spending bill covering the IRS was scheduled to come up first after reports that tax refunds could be an early casualty of the shutdown, but the White House announced Monday the IRS would seek a way to pay refunds during the shutdown, in a break with past policy.

With a handful of Republicans in both the House and Senate already having broken with the administration strategy of keeping the government partially shut while fighting over the wall, House Democrats' approach of bringing up individual spending bills could serve to further divide the GOP as the shutdown drags on.

"It's so urgent that we take steps to reopen parts of the government that directly affect working families, and that's why we're doing it bill by bill," House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said in an interview Monday.

"There are some Republicans that are very sensitive to their districts and their needs, and when they are not getting what they are entitled to, and when there's a problem with food and nutrition programs, and transportation, housing, the safe drinking water initiative - I would think that some Republicans would say maybe this is not the right way to do it," Lowey said.

Passage of the Treasury spending bill would be followed Thursday and Friday with House votes on spending bills to fund the Agriculture, Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments, which together oversee programs including food stamps, housing vouchers, assistance to farmers and traffic safety.

The White House has rejected House Democrats' approach, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has insisted repeatedly that he will not bring up any bill in the Senate that does not have Trump's support. That means that the Democratic bills could go nowhere in the end, but several Democrats said Monday that they would not back down on their approach or give in to Trump's demands for money for his wall, and instead would continue to push legislation to reopen the bulk of government while setting aside the fight over the wall.

"If they have to vote on this over and over and over again, they have to deal with the consequences of what they're doing to the American public," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "We have stated our position. We want to open government. We have provided a number of ways to do that. But it's time now for the president and his administration to take the full import of the consequences of his actions."

Last week, seven House Republicans broke ranks and voted with Democrats on a package of appropriations bills that reopened most of government without funding the wall, a number that could have been higher but for personal intervention by Vice President Pence, who called a number of Republicans to urge them to vote "no" on the Democrats' bills. Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen planned to visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to brief House Republicans ahead of this week's votes, part of an effort by the administration to keep Republicans in line and make the case for spending $5.7 billion to build more than 200 miles of wall along the border.

Pence also will meet with Senate Republicans on Wednesday.

"Our position is there is a crisis on our southern border, we've been negotiating to open the government and address that border crisis, we're also taking steps to mitigate the effects of the shutdown," Pence told reporters at a briefing Monday.

Asked about Republicans who've expressed the desire to advance spending bills to reopen government even without funding the wall, Pence said: "When they see the scope of this crisis, when they see the facts presented, they understand why the president is so adamant about doing something meaningful to advance border security. We'll just continue educating members."

This week's action in the House will be coupled by a new Democratic strategy in the Senate, where Democrats were coalescing behind a plan to block any legislation on the floor that doesn't reopen the federal government.

Privately, Schumer, has told the rest of his caucus that he would vote against advancing the first bill on the Senate floor this year, which would authorize security assistance to Israel and include provisions aimed at promoting security in the Middle East.

Democrats plan to vote against the measure to pressure McConnell to pass legislation funding the government, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss party strategy.

A growing coalition of Senate Democrats - hailing primarily from states that have a large population of federal workers, as well as the contingent of senators eyeing presidential bids in 2020 - say the chamber should not vote on anything else until the shutdown ends. Those tactics were first proposed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

"The Senate should vote on nothing else until we vote to reopen the government. Period," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted on Monday. "This shutdown is squeezing the finances of so many Americans, including thousands of federal workers who live in Virginia. As leaders, we can't just whistle past the graveyard of this crisis."

Among the Democratic senators who have endorsed Van Hollen's strategy include his fellow Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Thomas Carper, D-Del.

They are also supported by key liberal outside groups, including the Center for American Progress, Indivisible and the AFL-CIO, although this strategy hasn't been backed caucus-wide.

"I almost never use these types of procedures, but this is extraordinary to be meeting like this while a good part of the government is shut down," Cardin said Monday in an interview.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in response, "It would be a stunning reversal for Sen. Schumer to suddenly block security assistance to Israel simply because he can't work out his differences with President Trump on an unrelated matter."

Although the impacts of the shutdown will only increase the longer it continues, many Democrats, even those representing large contingents of federal workers, insist they are not feeling pressure thus far to capitulate or compromise with Trump. The president long claimed that Mexico would pay for the border wall, something that country has consistently said it would not do.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said his voters don't want him to just give up and give Trump his wall money so they can get their paychecks and go back to work.

"He's put himself in this box. It's a political stunt, it always was," Connolly said. "And I think it's highly irresponsible for Congress to write a check, a $6 billion-dollar check, in effect to help him get out of the corner he's boxed himself into with this political stunt."

This article was written by Seung Min Kim, Erica Werner and Jeff Stein, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Philip Rucker contributed to this report.