Trump insists GOP 'totally unified' amid signs of softening support for shutdown

Trump’s appearance at the Republican conference's weekly lunch came amid signs of growing frustration from some Republican lawmakers, with several publicly parting ways with the president's position.

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By Rebecca Shabad and Leigh Ann Caldwell

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pushed back Wednesday on reports that Republican support for his shutdown policy was softening after huddling with GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"I would say that we have a very, very unified party," Trump, flanked by Senate Republican leaders, said outside the room where he and Vice President Mike Pence met with members behind closed doors.

"Mitch has been fantastic," Trump said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "There was no reason for me even to be there. I knew that before we went in."

Trump added that there was "no discussion about anything other than solidarity" and that "the Republicans are totally unified."

"The president accurately characterized the discussion," McConnell added. "We're all behind the president."

Multiple senators leaving the lunch said Trump's message to them was "stick together" and "hang together." The president briefly brought up the idea of declaring a national emergency in a risky bid to secure wall funding, but wouldn't expand on it, according to Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.

Shortly before arriving on the Hill, the president had again nodded to the idea. “I think we might work a deal, and if we don’t we might go that route,” he told reporters at the White House on Wednesday morning.

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"I have the absolute authority to do a national emergency if I want," he said. "My threshold will be if I can't make a deal with people that are unreasonable.”

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that declaring a national emergency in order to build the border wall was legally doable and might be the best way to go. "What other options are there?" he said.

But others inside the room said the meeting itself had not gone as smoothly as Trump and McConnell had described.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that she had pushed the president on the shutdown, telling him that it has consequences and real people are starting to feel those effects. She said he responded by telling senators to stay unified. Asked how she had responded to Trump, Murkowski laughed, saying that the format had allowed little chance for rebuttal.

Trump’s appearance at the conference's weekly lunch, which also included Vice President Mike Pence, came amid growing frustration from Republican lawmakers with the partial government shutdown, now nearing the three-week mark, with several members publicly parting ways with the president's position.

Arriving on Capitol Hill, Trump had dismissed the idea that lawmakers might be re-thinking their support for his shutdown position. "We have great Republican support. As you know. You’re just making that up," he told reporters when asked if he was losing ground among GOP members, describing his prime-time address as "a big victory for the Republicans."

"There’s tremendous Republican support. Unwavering, as you probably know," he added.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is up for re-election in 2020 and is chair of the appropriations subcommittee in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Tuesday night that she would consider opening the rest of the government while continuing to negotiate on the border.

Murkowski had hit a similar note on Tuesday. “We don't need to hold up these six other departments at the same time that we are resolving these very important security issues," she said.

And Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told reporters Wednesday that it’s important to get the government reopened as quickly as possible and to have a barrier on the southern border. When asked if he would vote to reopen the government first without border security funding, Romney said he “will consider the various options that are brought forward.”

Two other Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, last week called for an end to the shutdown.

But the president stood by his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall in his nine-minute primetime address to the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, remained firm in their opposition to the president’s request.

"At this point I don’t think there’s really much talk of negotiating this or the other," Homeland Security chair Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked whether there had been any talk at the GOP meeting of lowering that figure, said. "It’s hanging tough to make sure we get the funding for the barriers."

Other attendees accompanying the president on his visit to the Hill included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Communications Director Bill Shine, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought.

The president's trip came just hours ahead of another scheduled White House visit by congressional leadership Wednesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were expected to attend another briefing in the Situation Room later Wednesday afternoon to discuss border wall funding.

The Democratic-controlled House, meanwhile, will begin voting on the first of four individual appropriation bills Wednesday that would re-open currently shuttered federal agencies.

Alex Moe and Garrett Haake contributed.