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President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had a heated exchange in front of reporters at the White House.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump vs. Nancy Pelosi, the standoff that will define Washington for the next two years, starts today.

The president and the presumptive speaker of the House are close in age (he is 72; she is 78), at the pinnacle of power in their political parties and eager to demonstrate that they are tough negotiators who can deliver. But in almost every other way, from ideology to resume to rhetorical style, the two could hardly be more different.

He won his first bid for elective office just over two years ago; she won her 17th term in the U.S. House in November. She is a liberal Democrat; he is a populist Republican. She is crisp, precise and disciplined; he is none of those things. 

They are slated to meet in the White House Situation Room on Wednesday afternoon for their first conversation since a Dec. 11 session in the Oval Office that is remembered mostly for Trump claiming credit for a looming government shutdown and Pelosi asserting her authority as leader of the new House majority.

“She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding,” daughter Alexandra Pelosi, a documentary filmmaker, said on CNN Wednesday. “This is not her first rodeo.”

Meanwhile, Trump suggested in a tweet Tuesday that they might be able to reach a compromise on immigration issues that would end the partial government shutdown, now in its 12th day.

“Border Security and the Wall ‘thing’ and Shutdown is not where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as Speaker!” he declared. “Let’s make a deal?”

Here’s what to watch during the White House meeting.

Bottom lines: The Wall

Trump says he won’t accept a budget deal that doesn’t include funding for the wall.

He has rejected the idea, floated by sometimes-ally Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., that the wall is “a metaphor” for border security. That was a suggestion that might have made it possible to take funding for other steps to secure the southern border and still claim victory. 

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“The problem is, without a Wall there can be no real Border Security – and our Country must finally have a Strong and Secure Southern Border!” he tweeted Tuesday.

The White House is underscoring the national-security aspects of the debate by holding the meeting not in the Cabinet Room or the Roosevelt Room but in the basement Situation Room. 

Pelosi says she won’t accept a budget deal that includes funding for the wall. The legislation House Democrats plan to pass when the new Congress convenes on Thursday includes $1.3 billion for border security, much less than the $5 billion the president wanted to start building the wall that has been his signature promise since he announced his candidacy.

In an interview with USA TODAY, she mocked Trump for his shifting explanations of what his wall might be, which he initially described as a cement structure that Mexico would finance. “Now he’s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something,” she said.

Mustering their troops

Trump dismayed any number of congressional Republicans by backing out of a deal that would have funded the government until Feb. 8, choosing to shut down parts of it instead. But almost all of them have kept their mouths shut.

GOP officials have learned the perils of provoking Trump and the ensuing Twitter tirade directed against them. Those most willing to risk it, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, are leaving town.

That said, incoming Utah senator Mitt Romney fired a pre-emptive shot Wednesday, the day before Vice President Mike Pence will swear him in to office. “With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable,” Romney wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.”

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Whether Romney will be speaking for more than himself isn’t clear. “I won big, and he didn’t,” Trump responded on Twitter.

Pelosi faced public challenges to her re-election as speaker among Democrats, including 16 representatives who had pledged to vote against her if they won. She had to win over critics who had argued it was time for new leadership, appointing some to key committees and agreeing to legislative priorities. 

Now the new House rules establish new committees to address climate change and to modernize the Congress. A new “consensus calendar” to speed passage of legislation that commands bipartisan support, both steps reformers wanted.

But it also changed the rules to make it harder to fire the speaker, or to embarrass her. Now a majority of Democrats or a majority of Republicans would be needed to introduce a motion to vacate the chair, to remove the speaker. That used to take just a single legislator, making it an easy way for a dissident to make a point. 

Paging Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will also be at the White House meeting. But he has pointedly declined to engage on the budget battle. The Senate unanimously passed the short-term funding bill before Trump, facing a hail of criticism from conservative talk-show hosts, announced he wouldn’t sign it because it didn’t include funding for the wall. (See “Bottom line,” above.)

McConnell has made it clear he thinks government shutdowns are stupid. “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule,” he told reporters. But he also has been loath to take on Trump.

Will he push the president to make a deal with Democrats? 

Stay tuned.

More: How long will the shutdown last? Here are lessons from previous budget battles.

More: The government shutdown is here. How does it affect you?

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