A partial government shutdown entered its fifth day Wednesday with no end in sight as one key ingredient is missing on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue: any sense of urgency to end the standoff.
President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders traded barbs—but few proposals that would fund nine Cabinet agencies and a handful of smaller federal offices—over the long Christmas weekend. And as Americans were celebrating the holiday with their families, the president only muddied the waters and dug in on his demand for $5 billion in border barrier funds.
“I can’t tell you when the government is going to re-open,” he told reporters Tuesday, adding he will not sign any spending bill to end the dispute until “we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it.”
“I’ll call it whatever they want. But it’s all the same thing,” he said of Democrats’ preference to give him federal monies for border “fencing” rather than the concrete and steel wall on which he campaigned so hard in 2016. Senate Democratic leaders over the weekend rejected an offer by Vice President Mike Pence for $2.1 billion in barrier funding and $400 million for other border security tools—which his boss mocked in one Sunday tweet.
The House and Senate remain adjourned on a Christmas break; the Senate is planning to be back in session today, and the House has scheduled a pro forma session. But as of Wednesday morning, there were no signs of formal talks planned. Here are three things to watch as lawmakers get set to possibly head back to Washington in search of a shutdown-ending deal.
With Congress out of session and many federal workers either furloughed or using vacation time over the holidays, what usually is a frenetic Wednesday morning commute was anything but. Two typically busy coffee shops near the White House were mostly empty around 8 a.m. On Capitol Hill, there was little stirring even as late at 11 a.m., with newspapers piled up outside the offices of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate minority whip’s office, for instance.
If the president is itching to end the shutdown, he certainly is not sending such signals.
Asked Tuesday if he is willing to negotiate a lesser barrier funding amount than his $5 billion demand, Trump responded: “It’s complicated. … We want the wall money to be increased.” But increased from what? Pence offered Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the aforementioned $2.1 billion amount, which is less than Trump’s initial demand but more than the $1.3 billion for “fencing” that Schumer has advocated in recent days.
Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have not said much publicly other than a Christmas Eve statement criticizing the president. They appear content to allow the president to come to their position—but he has only returned to his hardline campaign-trail rhetoric in recent days. For instance, here is Trump in the Oval Office on Christmas: “It’s a barrier from people pouring into our country. … It’s a barrier from drugs. … They are bad people. We can’t do it without a barrier. We can’t do it without a wall.”
Just what does Trump want, and what might he be willing to accept? It remains anyone’s guess as federal workers on Wednesday signed their furlough notices and set up indefinite out-of-office email messages.
Sanders told Roll Call on Friday that her boss might be willing to accept a lesser amount, a stance supported by Pence’s offer. But Trump’s public comments and tweets—including a reference to “shutdown money,” which lit up social media but sowed new confusion—only added new murkiness to the talks.
Schumer and Pelosi admit they are plenty confused with how the president and his team are approaching the negotiations, a business skill he still boasts he has in spades.
“Different people from the same White House are saying different things about what the president would accept or not accept to end his Trump shutdown, making it impossible to know where they stand at any given moment,” the Democrats said Monday. “The president wanted the shutdown, but he seems not to know how to get himself out of it.”
Sources say Schumer is the lead Democrat at the table now, with Pelosi getting regular updates from him. But that will change dramatically next week if there is no deal before then. That’s because Minority Leader Pelosi is expected to again become Speaker Pelosi when Democrats take control of the House on Jan. 3.
Democrats are confident they gain leverage with every second as the clock ticks toward a new Congress with their first House majority since 2011. Senior White House officials seem to sense the same. See Pence’s offer. Also see White House Budget Director and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s comments from Sunday on ABC: “We’ve insisted on $5 billion (in border barrier funds). But (in) the discussions, now we’re between $1.6 billion and $1.5 billion.”
Former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum said Wednesday that Republicans and Democrats eventually will have to strike a deal to “buy each other off.”
“I guess the deal is what money do the Democrats want?” he asked rhetorically on CNN.
But the former Pennsylvania senator underscored a point that will become even starker when divided government sets in next week: “The president has put himself in a position where he can’t really back down. He has to come home with something to improve our security at the southern border, and part of that has to be some kind of physical barrier.”
But if the president remains dug in and listening to immigration hardliners as he did during a Saturday lunch at the White House with conservative Republican lawmakers and officials, a deal with a Democratic-controlled House will be even harder to strike.
“As long as the president is guided by the House Freedom Caucus,” Pelosi and Schumer said of that conservative faction, “it’s hard to see how he can come up with a solution that can pass both the House and Senate and end his ‘Trump Shutdown.’”
AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq
In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump staunchly defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from neighboring Syria despite a drumbeat of criticism from military officials and allies who don’t think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over.
Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a troubled region, said it’s because the U.S. military had all but eliminated IS-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria that he decided to withdraw 2,000 personnel from Syria. He said the decision to leave Syria showed America’s renewed stature on the world stage and his quest to put “America first.”
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told U.S. servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq, about 100 miles west of Baghdad. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
The decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, however, stunned national security advisers and U.S. allies and prompted the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic extremist group. The militant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.
Iraq declared IS defeated within its borders in December 2017, but Trump’s trip was shrouded in secrecy, which has been standard practice for presidents flying into conflict areas.
Air Force One, lights out and window shutters drawn, flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad in darkness Wednesday evening. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq as president and President Barack Obama made one.
During his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. He stopped at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on his way back for a second unannounced visit to troops and military leaders.
Trump’s Iraq visit appeared to have inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. The two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament both condemned the visit, likening it to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The airbase where Trump spoke is about 155 miles from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists.
Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but the latest estimate is that IS still holds about 60 square miles of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.
Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon until late February, but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job Jan. 1. Trump said he was in “no rush” to nominate a new defense chief.
“Everybody and his uncle wants that position,” Trump told reporters traveling with him in Iraq. “And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won’t be criticized.”
Critics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the latest in Trump’s increasingly isolationist-style foreign policy, would provide an opening for IS to regroup, give Iran a green light to expand its influence in the region and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” said Trump, who wore an olive green bomber style jacket as he was welcomed by chants of “USA! USA!” and speakers blaring Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA.”
“We’ll be watching ISIS very closely,” said Trump, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump, but no members of his Cabinet or lawmakers. “We’ll be watching them very, very closely, the remnants of ISIS.”
Trump also said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq. That’s down from about 170,000 in 2007 at the height of the surge of U.S. forces to combat sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
Trump spoke on the phone with the prime minister, but the White House said security concerns and the short notice of the trip prevented the president from meeting him face-to-face.
The prime minister’s office said “differences in points of view over the arrangements” prevented the two from meeting but they discussed security issues and Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Abdul-Mahdi’s office also did not say whether he had accepted an invitation to the White House. But Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to come.
Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria return home, Iraq could still be used to stage attacks on IS militants.
“We can use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria,” he said. “If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard” that they “really won’t know what the hell happened.”
Trump said it’s time to leave Syria because the U.S. should not be involved in nation-building and that other wealthy nations should shoulder the cost of rebuilding Syria. He also said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to battle “any remnants of ISIS” in Syria, which shares a border with Turkey.
“The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future,” Trump said, promising a “strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal” of forces from Syria
Trump had faced criticism for not yet visiting U.S. troops stationed in harm’s way as he comes up on his two-year mark in office. He told The Associated Press in October that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.
Trump told reporters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word of the trip started getting out and forced him to postpone it.
Iraqi leaders declared an end to combat operations against IS a year ago, but the country’s political, military and economic situation remains uncertain. It continues to experience sporadic bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, which most people attribute to IS.
On Dec. 15, the U.S.-led coalition launched an airstrike in support of Iraqi troops who were chasing IS fighters toward a tunnel west of Mosul. The strike destroyed the tunnel entrance and killed four IS fighters, according to the U.S. military in Baghdad. The last U.S. service member to die in Iraq was in August, as the result of a helicopter crash in Sinjar.
Trump had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida but stayed behind in Washington due to the partial government shutdown.
Trump campaigned for office on a platform of ending U.S. involvement in foreign trouble spots, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon is also said to be developing plans to withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American troops still serving in Afghanistan.
Richard “Dick” Ambrose
George “Bill” Babcock
Robert W. Duesterbeck
Bonnie S. Myers
Albert L. Rogge
Dolores “Dee” Schupbach
Harold “Skip” Schuren
Wilma Van Dyken
Betty K. West
Gerald Herbert Wescott
Lorraine C. Wuttke
A local artisan who led the revamp of the once-threatened Oak Hill Cemetery chapel is turning his focus to a new idea: tiny homes that could offer temporary housing for local homeless people.
Richard Snyder of Janesville said he has reached out to the city with a plan to build several 200-square-foot tiny homes on a vacant city lot.
Under Snyder’s plans, an cluster of five to seven tiny homes on a single lot could offer homeless people low-maintenance shelter and a sense of community as they try to find a path out of homelessness.
Snyder is a custom equipment designer and manufacturer and stained-glass artist who helped lead a community fundraising drive and a volunteer effort that would have cost $1.5 million in labor, one city official estimated, to rehabilitate the Oak Hill chapel, which the city planned to demolish.
The revamped chapel had a grand opening this summer after several years of work.
Snyder said he became interested in the idea of tiny homes after he read about a homeless military veteran who was found dead in the Rock River near downtown Janesville in August. Snyder said he also read about the city working with local nonprofit groups on a homelessness task force that would look at new housing options.
Snyder said he read other reports of a group of tiny homes built in Racine to help house homeless veterans.
Snyder drafted floor and exterior plans for a prototype home that would have a kitchen, a bathroom and a living/sleeping space. Snyder said he is in the process of launching a fundraising campaign on social media called “Friends Helping Friends: A Tiny Home Project.”
“I think we could start another community group like we did with the Oak Hill chapel that was such a great success,” Snyder said. “The community of Janesville came together to first help us save it and then restore it, and then a lot of the local contractors came forward, and suppliers. I think we could do the same thing with the problem in Janesville with the homeless.”
Snyder said some from the Oak Hill chapel’s friends group have indicated they would pitch in on a tiny homes project.
Snyder said he pitched the tiny homes idea to city officials in August, but the city didn’t give him much of a reaction.
Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem said she is familiar with Snyder’s idea, but she said he isn’t the only one she has talked with about the idea of tiny homes for homeless people.
She said one area “not-for-profit service provider” has pitched a similar idea, though she declined to name the group.
In its plan, the group would move some of its clients into tiny homes to help them “establish stability,” ultimately making the homes a stepping stone to permanent housing.
“It’s an idea we’ve been kicking around for some time. Recently, I’ve had somebody that says we should maybe turn old rail cars into housing. We’re willing to explore anything. It depends on how it would fit into our community and whether it’s funded,” Bedessem said.
Bedessem said some in the city’s Community Development Authority, which oversees city housing rental programs, have shown support for a tiny homes program, but she also called the idea “very conceptual.”
Bedessem said the city’s plan commission and city council would have to examine the issue. Tiny homes aren’t allowed under Janesville’s current zoning rules.
Snyder said his plan likely would rely on placing a cluster of five to seven tiny homes on a vacant, city-owned lot, creating a mini-neighborhood.
Snyder said the tiny homes he has drawn up would cost about $7,000 to build, but they would be designed to link into city services. He pictures them looking like “modern” cabins, only smaller—10 feet by 20 feet with high windows.
Bedessem said a proposal for tiny homes as a homeless housing solution would face a slew of questions from city officials and the public. She said the homes would need to be centrally located near city bus stops and a grocery store because it’s likely the residents wouldn’t have their own transportation.
Bedessem said she thinks a case-management strategy for a tiny home village would be crucial. Local nonprofit groups that work with homeless people might be best suited to undertake that job, she said.
The homes would have to be built suitably for Wisconsin winter, which would mean electrical service and heating.
She said some residential neighborhoods might be resistant to the idea of tiny homes.
“We certainly don’t want to have folks super excited about a project if we can’t make it happen,” Bedessem said. “It’s some hoops to jump through. It would be a change. You may have some folks who wouldn’t want that in their backyard, some NIMBY stuff. There’s a lot of things to think about before we start swinging a hammer.”