On Capitol Hill, prime-time speeches only pushed parties further apart

4 min


Neither President Trump’s televised Oval Office address arguing for his border wall nor the rebuttal from Democratic congressional leaders appeared to move either party any closer to ending the 18-day partial government shutdown, according to the reactions of lawmakers across the political spectrum late Tuesday.

Instead, a review of dozens of written statements and interviews indicated, the parties have only become more entrenched in their positions — while a few wondered aloud about the point of the dueling prime-time statements carried live by the television networks.

“Nobody convinced anybody,” tweeted Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, an iconoclastic Republican, moments after the conclusion of the Democratic response from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

Their televised remarks were vivid. “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” Trump asked, rattling off questionable facts and figures about illegal immigrant crime. “We don’t govern by temper tantrum,” said Schumer, demanding alongside Pelosi that Trump reopen the government.

But neither Trump nor the Democrats put forth any basis for compromise, even a kernel to spark further discussions, which are set to resume Wednesday at the White House. Instead, each party’s leading voices quickly echoed their respective leaders.

Speaking on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said “the only way we lose is to give in.”

“If we stand firm, put deals on the table that make sense, we will win this on behalf of the American people,” he said. “But if we undercut the president, that’s the end of his presidency and the end of our party, and we deserve to be punished if we give in now.”

Over on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” superstar freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attacked Trump’s human rights record and questioned not only the border wall but the whole immigration enforcement apparatus.

“The president should not be asking for more money to an agency that has systematically violated human rights,” she said, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The president should be really defending why we are funding such an agency at all. Right now, what we are seeing is death. Right now, what we are seeing is the violation of human rights.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered a 12-minute rebuttal that was streamed live on social media networks, though not carried live on television. After dismissing Trump’s border wall and lambasting the shutdown, he pivoted to other “crises” — climate change, economic inequality, uneven health care and rising student debt.

“We don’t have to create artificial crises,” he said. “We have enough real crises.”

Congressional leaders were hardly more measured. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) accused Trump in a statement of having “peddled falsehoods to the American people live from the Oval Office” and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Pelosi and Schumer in demanding the government be reopened before border negotiations take place: “This shutdown must end, and only President Trump has the power to end it.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, backed Trump’s claims of a “humanitarian and security crisis” at the border and said his wall proposal “suits the reality on the ground.”

“The past 18 days have shown that Democrats’ refusal to negotiate is not due to any principled objection, but simply due to partisan spite for the president,” he said.

The messaging war is set to continue through the week. On Wednesday morning, Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer (D-N.Y.) are set to appear in the Capitol with furloughed federal workers before heading to an afternoon negotiating session at the White House with Trump and Republican leaders.

On Thursday, Trump is scheduled to visit the southern border to highlight what he described as a “humanitarian crisis” in his Tuesday night address. “A crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he called it.

Among the congressional rank and file, the warnings were dire and the rhetoric was occasionally apocalyptic. For Republicans, the threat was crime and drugs.

“Mexican meth is coming into Montana and destroying families across our state,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), while colleague Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) accused Democrats of “playing games with the safety and security of each and every town in America.”

“As long as border officials refer 50 migrants for medical care each day and 300 Americans are overdosing on heroin each week, there’s no time for the Democrats to continue to ignore this crisis and oppose clear solutions to it,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

Democrats, meanwhile, mainly leveled their harsh attacks on the president himself.

“Much like the TV dramas that typically air during prime time, the president’s speech was fiction,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), while Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said “Trump sounds like a broken record. He reverts to the same old script — demagoguery and xenophobia — because that’s all he knows how to do.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) accused Trump of “seeking to protect his own ego and pander to his base,” while Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called the address “simply fact-free fearmongering and data-distorting demagoguery.”

“Let’s be very clear,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said. “The only ‘crisis’ at the southern border is the humanitarian crisis President Trump and his administration created by ripping babies away from their parents’ arms and locking up children.”

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), also slammed Trump’s “fearmongering and lies” but also sought to debunk his case for the wall: “A wall will not stop the flow of illegal drugs he talks about, which overwhelmingly come through legal ports of entry. A wall is ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“I see no indication tonight that the president is willing to negotiate in good faith,” Thompson added.

More moderate lawmakers — who tend to be more interested in solving thorny problems like an extended shutdown — might have been less shrill, but they were hardly extending hands of friendship in light of Trump’s address.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has long advocated a broad immigration deal that would trade wall funding for legal status for some illegal immigrants, called for just that on Tuesday. But he said it was on Democrats to act, not the GOP: “Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer have yet to put forward a single serious alternative to open our government and fund border security.”

And Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a erstwhile negotiating partner of Tillis’s, rejected a “costly and ineffective border wall” outright: “The president’s continued insistence on building a wall along our southern border, which he justifies with misleading and even false information, is not productive and only serves to further divide our country.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.


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