Read: Will the government ever reopen?
The president underscored the futility of Sunday’s confab before it even took place: “I don’t expect to have anything happen at that meeting,” he told reporters that morning, before heading to Camp David. “Ultimately, it’s going to be solved by the principals.”
In other words, Pence entered the talks under no illusion that progress lay waiting. The result was that Pence’s negotiating partners saw him as a man sidelined, a status that has increasingly defined the vice president’s tenure, according to interviews with lawmakers, aides, and current and former administration officials, many of whom requested anonymity in order to speak frankly and reveal confidential details.
Read: Mike Pence’s talent for being absent
In Sunday’s meeting, for example, Democratic staffers made clear that they would not negotiate border-wall funding until the government reopens, maintaining the position House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had staked out days before. According to two congressional staffers in the room, Pence responded by discussing funding for border-security items both parties might agree upon, such as drone technology. For Pence, the sources said, it appeared an attempt to maintain a smooth and congenial discussion. Nevertheless, with regard to the sticking point—$5.7 billion for a wall—both parties remained dug in. “I wish he’d been a bit more forceful,” lamented one Republican aide who was in the room.
Pence has never been an outwardly aggressive negotiator on behalf of the president, preferring to project a calm, respectful, and reasonable demeanor to contrast Donald Trump’s bombast. It’s a posture that most lawmakers and aides I spoke to appreciated, praising Pence as a valuable sounding board for their frustrations with the White House, notably at Senate Republicans’ weekly policy lunches, which he attends frequently. Yet when it comes to reaching a deal with Democrats to reopen the government, it has mattered almost none: On Monday, day 17 of the partial government shutdown, the White House announced its most serious threat yet to declare a national state of emergency over what it claims is a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pence signaled his readiness to abandon talks with Democrats in favor of this move, telling reporters on Monday that the border represents a “humanitarian and national-security crisis.”
“He’s investing in GOP solidarity,” a senior aide to a GOP member close to Pence told me, “not deal making with Democrats.”
Should the administration declare a state of emergency, Pence’s reputation as a mediator between the White House and Congress would likely take a hit. Such a declaration would symbolize the administration’s failure not only to pick off Democrats, but also to maintain the total support of its own party: In the past week, moderate Senate Republicans such as Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina said they were prepared to back the government’s reopening with or without wall funding.