WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump clashed with Democratic leaders in dramatic fashion Tuesday, heaping pressure on Congress to craft a compromise on federal spending or face a crippling government shutdown in 10 days.
Hours after the president suggested a funding deal with Democrats may be impossible, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer pulled out of a planned White House meeting with Trump that they said would be fruitless.
"Given that the president doesn't see a deal between Democrats and the White House, we believe the best path forward is to continue negotiating with our Republican counterparts in Congress instead," the pair said in a statement.
Trump shot back that he was not surprised the Democrats rejected his offer, saying they were "very far apart" on several issues like immigration.
"They've been all talk and they've been no action. And now it's even worse, now it's not even talk," Trump declared during the meeting, which went ahead with Republican congressional leaders -- an empty chair on either side of the president underscoring the absence of their Democratic counterparts.
Later, after a new North Korean missile launch, Trump said on Twitter: "it's more important than ever to fund our gov't & military! Dems shouldn't hold troop funding hostage for amnesty & illegal immigration. I ran on stopping illegal immigration and won big. They can't now threaten a shutdown to get their demands."
The rare public rejection of White House talks ratcheted up tensions in Washington over a 2018 spending bill that must pass by a December 8 deadline, and served as a stinging rebuke to a president who often mocks his rivals on Twitter.
The spat heaps pressure on Congress to craft a compromise or face a crippling government shutdown next month.
And it muddied the waters on the same day Trump headed to Congress to urge fellow Republicans to unite behind his tax overhaul, a controversial bill that he wants on his desk by year end.
Trump lunched with Senate Republicans for an hour, answering questions from Ron Johnson and Susan Collins, who have concerns about the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, addressing reporters afterwards, acknowledged the challenge in getting at least 50 of his chamber's 52 Republicans on board, likening it to solving "a Rubik's Cube."
'Chuck and Nancy'
Behind the tough talk, Trump needs Schumer and Pelosi to rally their party's votes to keep government running through the next 10 months.
But the self-styled master dealmaker Trump derailed Tuesday's plans for a bipartisan White House meeting on the challenge ahead when he hit the two top Democrats -- whom he called "Chuck and Nancy" -- in a morning tweet.
"Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes," he added. "I don't see a deal!"
Schumer later said Democrats would meet with Trump "any time, anywhere, any place," so long as he was serious about a deal.
"But there is an alternative; when the president stays out of it we seem to do much better."
The White House expressed disappointment at the no-show, urging Democrats to "put aside their pettiness" and "grandstanding," and saying Trump's invitation remained open.
McConnell did not hide his irritation at the snub, calling it "a lack of seriousness" about the prospect of a looming government shutdown.
In 2013, a similar spending feud caused 850,000 government officials to be sent home temporarily, and as much as half a percentage point was shaved off economic growth.
Trump has staked much of his fragile political reputation on being a good steward of the economy, so failure could be damaging. But Democrats are demanding a steep price for their support.
They say funding for Trump's border "wall" must be stripped out, and Trump must honour the Obama administration's pledge to allow migrants brought to the country as children to remain.
The issue, as tricky as it is, is not the only problem on Trump's plate.
In December, a "debt ceiling" deadline is also looming -- if missed, the US government could be hurtling towards a technical default in the new year.
And beyond the spending fight, Trump's primary task will be to pass tax cuts, which Republicans see as absolutely vital to keep voters and donors happy.
Having so far failed to pass healthcare, immigration or infrastructure reforms, Trump faces a party revolt if he cannot make tax cuts law.
With the party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, the task should be straightforward. But little is straightforward in Washington these days.
The administration has struggled to convince the public that the tax cut will help middle-class families, and a Harvard-Harris Poll showed a majority of voters oppose the bill.
Democrats portray the proposals as good for big business but bad for ordinary Americans, while half a dozen Republican senators have publicly expressed doubts about the plan, which the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects would increase the national debt by $1.4 trillion by 2027.
The White House argues the cuts will boost growth, in turn increasing tax revenue, although most economists disagree.