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Weekend shutdown talks led by Pence to go into a second day

Government shudown enters third week

White House officials and congressional aides kicked off weekend talks Saturday aimed at ending a partial government shutdown that has dragged into a 15th day. Vice President Mike Pence, who led the conversation, described Saturday's session as "productive" on Twitter, although no breakthrough was reached.

"Productive discussion w/ Congressional leadership staff at @WhiteHouse. @SecNielsen gave a full presentation on crisis along Southern Border. We reaffirmed @POTUS' commitment to secure the border, build the wall, keep Americans safe & reopen gov't. Discussions continue tomorrow," Pence tweeted.

However, President Trump tweeted on Saturday that after being briefed by Pence on the meeting, he concluded that there was "not much headway made today." The White House aides and Democratic and Republican staffers planned to return to the talks on Sunday. 

Mr. Trump and congressional Democrats have been at an impasse over demands for $5.6 billion to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A White House official said Saturday's meeting included a briefing on border security by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Democrats restated their request to reopen government while border security talks continue, which the White House rejected. Democrats also sought written details on Department of Homeland Security needs, and specifically on the budgetary breakdown of the requested $5.6 billion, which the White House said it would provide.

Government Shutdown
White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, left, walks with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, center, and Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. Alex Brandon / AP

Mr. Trump, who did not attend the discussions, spent the morning tweeting about border security.

Showing little empathy for the hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed or working without pay, Mr. Trump declared — without citing evidence — that most are Democrats. He also asserted: "I want to stop the Shutdown as soon as we are in agreement on Strong Border Security! I am in the White House ready to go, where are the Dems?"

One Democrat, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, said in his party's weekly radio address that the shutdown "is part of a larger pattern of a president who puts his personal whims and his effort to score political points before the needs of the American people. ... He is pointing fingers at everyone but himself."

Mr. Trump and Democratic leaders met for roughly two hours Friday, but gave differing accounts of the session. Democrats reported little progress; Trump framed the weekend talks as a key step forward.

According to a source familiar with the Friday meeting, Mr. Trump initiated the talks – held for the second time this week in the White House Situation Room – by lambasting the shutdown impasse and again demanding $5.6 billion for border security, which he declared to be the minimum figure he needed to build the southern border wall he has been promising since his presidential campaign.  

But Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, again refused to consider that number. The president then told them he was willing to continue to the shutdown "for months or even years" unless the Democrats agreed to what he says is crucial funding for the southern border.

"I did say that. Absolutely, I said that," Mr, Trump later confirmed at a press conference, when CBS News' Major Garrett asked him if he had in fact told them that he'd keep the government shut for "years." 

Mr. Trump also tried unsuccessfully to appeal to Pelosi's Roman Catholic faith in arguing for wall funding.

"The Vatican has walls. The Vatican has walls surrounding the city," Mr. Trump said, according to the source. "You like the Vatican, Nancy?"

"Let's change the subject, sir," Pelosi replied.

It was not the first time the president has brought up the Vatican walls as a comparison in their discussions, administration sources said. The president mentioned the Vatican during their meeting earlier in the week, too. 

A source familiar with the exchange said the president respects Pelosi and was just kidding with her to make a point. But she seemed to take the comment "not well." 

As the shutdown drags on, some Republicans are growing increasingly nervous. Some GOP senators up for re-election in 2020, including Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, have voiced discomfort with the shutdown in recent days. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina penned an op-ed for The Hill, arguing that Congress should end the shutdown and make a deal on border security and immigration reforms.

Trump says he may call a national emergency to build border wall

In calling on Mr. Trump to reopen government while negotiations on border security continue, Democrats have emphasized families unable to pay bills due to absent paychecks. But Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he will not budge without money for the wall.

Mr. Trump asserted on Friday that he could declare a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval, but would first try a "negotiated process." Mr. Trump previously described the situation at the border as a "national emergency" before he sent active-duty troops; critics described that as a pre-election stunt.

"I can do it if I want," Mr. Trump told reporters Friday about declaring a national emergency. "I may do it."

If Mr. Trump called a national emergency, he would have the unilateral authority to build the wall. Although he has repeatedly claimed that Mexico would pay for the wall to be built, the money would come from American taxpayers if wall funding is approved by Congress or if it is used in a national emergency.

A national emergency is one of the conditions under which Pentagon funds could be used to build the wall. It's unclear how much of the Pentagon budget could be used for a national emergency. One option would be to have the Army Corps of Engineers build it. Despite its name, the Corps is made up almost entirely of civilians who administer construction contracts, so troops wouldn't actually be building the wall.

Mr. Trump said the federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay would want him to "keep going" and fight for border security. Asked how people would manage without a financial safety net, he said: "The safety net is going to be having a strong border because we're going to be safe."

Fin Gomez and Grace Segers contributed to this report.