WASHINGTON – Rep. Dean Phillips joined fellow members of Congress on Wednesday in urging President Donald Trump to reopen the entire federal government, using a private meeting to push for an end to the nearly monthlong shutdown.
Phillips, a newly elected Minnesota Democrat, said he was one of 12 House members — six Democrats and six Republicans — summoned to the lunch hour meeting in the White House Situation Room as the shutdown hit its 26th day. All are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of moderates that Phillips joined upon taking office.
“The president explained his position and afforded every one of us the chance to explain ours,” Phillips said. “We went there to express the fact that hundreds of thousands of federal employees are suffering, working without pay, that millions more contractors and people who rely on government services are increasingly being impacted.”
Democrats and a growing number of Republicans are urging Trump to reopen the government, to be followed by negotiations between the White House and Congress over border security and immigration. To date, Trump has not backed down on his insistence that he won’t do so until Congress agrees to $5.7 billion for border security measures including a wall.
“We have got to end the shutdown before negotiations can begin,” Phillips said, adding he and many Democrats are open to border security enhancements and changes to immigration law.
Given the chance to speak at the meeting, Phillips said he urged Trump not to view the consequences of the shutdown through a political lens. The president has previously tweeted his belief that most of the federal workers affected by the shutdown are Democrats.
“I made the distinct point to the president that political affiliation is not important relative to the employees not being paid,” Phillips said. “Safety and security is what’s important, and safety and security is being affected by the shutdown.”
Phillips said the meeting ran an hour. He declined to characterize Trump’s remarks, saying there was mutual agreement on both sides of the room to keep specifics private.
“Everybody listened,” Phillips said.
“The President and his team had a constructive meeting with bipartisan members of the problem solvers caucus,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted afterward. “They listened to one another and now both have a good understanding of what the other wants. We look forward to more conversations like this.”
Phillips, who unseated Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen in part by linking him to Trump, has said since joining Congress that he wants to see more cooperation between the parties. He also said he’d like to see more rank-and-file members involved in solving political standoffs like the shutdown, rather than just the top congressional leaders.
Still, he stressed the meeting was not an effort to subvert Democratic leaders. “This was not a negotiation. This was a plea for negotiation,” Phillips said.
The efforts by Phillips and his colleagues are echoed in the Senate. A bipartisan group of senators is working on a letter to Trump urging him to reopen the government in exchange for a promise of good-faith negotiations on immigration and border security, Politico reported Thursday.
The Problem Solvers Caucus has about four dozen members, evenly split between the two parties; Phillips expressed his interest in joining it while on the campaign trail. Of the group’s full membership, Phillips and the rest at Wednesday’s meeting were specifically invited, he said.
Phillips said it was his first time meeting Trump. He was also among a group of moderate Democrats invited to the White House a day earlier, but he and the rest declined. Phillips said the subsequent invitation had more specifics, and he appreciated that the meeting was to be private rather than in front of TV cameras.
Phillips said he isn’t sure how he ended up on the White House’s radar.
“I’m someone who has long articulated the need to be a listener and to be bipartisan in spirit, and someone frankly who is somewhat of an outsider,” Phillips said.