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Shutdown showdown: Democrats press to reopen government as Trump heads to border

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, listens during a news conference on Jan. 2, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

WASHINGTON - Democrats sought unsuccessfully Thursday to pass bills to reopen shuttered government agencies as President Donald Trump headed to the U.S.-Mexico border in a bid to gain leverage in a stalemate over funding his long-promised border wall.

With a partial government shutdown now nearly three weeks old, Trump has an afternoon event planned at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, and will then head to the Rio Grande for a briefing, according to guidance provided by the White House.

Furloughed federal workers, contractors and union representatives were marching toward the White House Thursday to demand an end to the shutdown, while both pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators lined the streets in McAllen, Texas, in advance of the president's arrival.

According to local television reports, Trump supporters and protesters in McAllen numbered in the hundreds. A historic theater in McAllen posted a sign drawing attention to the city's ranking as one of the country's safest places to live.

"Welcome to McAllen, 7th Safest City in America," reads the sign, posted on the marquee of the Cine El Rey Theatre, according to local TV station News 4 San Antonio.

In a 2015 study by financial services firm SmartAsset examining the 200 largest cities in the country, McAllen was ranked the seventh safest.

Before leaving the White House, Trump said if he can't cut a deal with Congress, he "probably" will declare a national emergency and direct the military to build a wall without congressional consent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she thinks Trump "loves the distraction" that the partial government shutdown has created.

"I think he loves the distraction that this is from his other problems," Pelosi said during a news conference in which she continued to insist that Trump's demand for wall funding "is not the best way to protect our borders."

Pelosi also questioned whether Trump is truly confident that a border wall makes sense.

"If you have confidence in your own position, why do you say, 'I have to shut down government to get people to heed what I'm saying?'"

"I don't even know if the president wants the wall. I think he just wants the debate on the wall," she added.

Pelosi said the House would continue to vote on bills to reopen shuttered agencies even though Republican leaders in the Senate have said they won't take them up since Trump won't sign them.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rebuffed efforts by Democrats on Thursday to pass spending bills that would reopen shuttered government agencies, including several that had nothing to do with border security.

After Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., sought consent to move forward with a bill, McConnell objected, calling the Democratic strategy "pointless, absolutely pointless."

"This will not produce a result," McConnell said. "It won't solve the problem because the president has made clear he won't sign them."

Speaking on the floor, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., unsuccessfully pleaded with McConnell to take up the legislation.

"Let's separate our disagreements over border security from the government shutdown, reopen all the government agencies unrelated to border security, and let's continue to work to resolve our differences," Schumer said. "Do not hold all of these workers as hostages, as pawns, as leverage."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., warned his Republican colleagues of the consequences of not acting by Friday.

"I will tell you your phones will all be ringing off the hook tomorrow when federal employees miss that first paycheck," Van Hollen said.

Trump said Thursday that he is scrapping his plans to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this month because of the partial government shutdown. He made the announcement via Twitter as Air Force Once was still en route to Texas. It was not immediately clear if other members of the Trump administration still plan to attend.

"Because of the Democrats intransigence on Border Security and the great importance of Safety for our Nation, I am respectfully cancelling my very important trip to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum," Trump wrote. "My warmest regards and apologies to the @WEF!"

Earlier Thursday, Trump said that he "probably" will declare a national emergency if he can't strike a deal with Congress on border wall funding.

Such a declaration would allow Trump to direct the military to construct a wall without congressional consent - a move Democrats have vowed to fight in court.

"I have the option," Trump told reporters as he departed the White House en route to Texas. "If this doesn't work out, I probably will do it, maybe definitely."

Trump said that he is not ready yet to declare an emergency and that he would still prefer to work with Congress. He added that he is willing to compromise.

"I would like to do the deal through Congress," he said. "It makes sense to do the deal through Congress. . . . It would be nice if we can make a deal, but dealing with these people is ridiculous."

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Thursday that "it's not the best use of presidential power" for Trump to declare a national emergency and direct the military to build a wall without congressional consent.

During an appearance on MSNBC, Cole said doing so would amount to "punting" the issue to the courts. Democrats have vowed a legal fight with Trump if he invokes emergency powers, which he has said remains an option if he can't strike a deal with Congress.

"I'd rather get to a deal," Cole said, adding: "I do think others agree with me."

Other lawmakers who've expressed reservations about an emergency declaration include Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the ranking Republican in the House Armed Services Committee.

Vice President Mike Pence is on Capitol Hill to meet with Republican senators who have talked in a long-shot bid, which includes other immigration provisions, to end the shutdown.

"Just arrived at Capitol to talk w/ members of Congress about the humanitarian & security crisis at our southern border," Pence said in a tweet Thursday. "@POTUS made clear he will stand firm to achieve the priorities of the American people to build a wall & add personnel, resources, & reforms to stem the crisis."

This article was written by John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.