Senate moderates see influence grow after shutdown fight

Senate moderates see influence grow after shutdown fight
© Greg Nash

As the partisan blame game on the government shutdown intensified over the weekend, a growing number of senators from both parties began meeting in “little Switzerland."

That was the term used for the neutral ground of Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE’s (R-Maine) office, which became the stage for a crucial stretch of bipartisan negotiations that were widely credited with breaking the three-day impasse over government funding.

"It’s the one place where we can all go and feel good," Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters, referring to the fourth floor Dirksen office as "Switzerland."

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Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Morrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments MORE (D-W.Va.) added that, amid the public bickering, Collins’s office became a place where senators could negotiate, not talk “at each other.”

To help prevent cross talking, senators in the meeting used a stick, and later a ball, to help determine who had the floor. Manchin drew laughter from his colleagues as they tried to figure out speaking order during an impromptu press conference, saying they could “pass the ball around.”

When the group first met on Friday, there were 17 senators trying to come up with a way to prevent the closure. That number swelled to 25 on Sunday afternoon as the shutdown ground through the weekend.

“That is a powerful voting bloc in the Senate and it includes Republican members as well as Democrats,” Collins said.

The group makes up a fourth of the Senate, bringing together a cross-section of the “governing wing” of the GOP caucus and Democrats from red and purple states — including several senators up for reelection next year.

It includes GOP moderates Collins and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (Alaska), chairmen like Tennessee Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix Supreme Court vacancy throws Senate battle into chaos Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion groups see chance to overturn Roe v. Wade with Kennedy retirement | HHS watchdog to probe detention center conditions | VA pick vows to oppose privatization MORE and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump seeks to quell Russia furor MORE, and Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Flake to Trump: 'Fake news' didn't side with Putin, you did MORE (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — an immigration duo who began pitching their own plan last week.

Democrats who were involved in the talks included Manchin and Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Senate Dems lock in million in TV airtime Why does Congress keep playing political games on FBI oversight? MORE (Mo.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Senate Dems rip Trump after Putin news conference MORE (Fla.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Bipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate Fed chief lays out risks of trade war MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Fed chief lays out risks of trade war Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE (Ind.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick Election Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race Green Day's 'American Idiot' climbs UK charts ahead of Trump visit MORE (Va.) — who are all up for reelection this fall — as well as Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Booker seizes on Kavanaugh confirmation fight MORE (Minn.), who has been floated as a potential 2020
presidential candidate.

“I’ve been to [bipartisan] meetings with pieces and smaller groups, but this was the first one that I’ve attended that was of this scope. We had 19 or 20 in the first meeting, 25 or so in the second meeting,” said Corker, who is retiring at the end of the Congress. “I think it was necessary to build the trust for Democrats to be willing to go along with what has occurred.”

Collins started the “Common Sense Coalition” back during the 2013 government shutdown. She, Manchin and other members were also part of a bipartisan group talking around last year’s GOP effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which ultimately failed.

They got the gang back together again on Friday, along with some new members, as a government shutdown seemed imminent. Senate Democrats ultimately rejected a four-week funding bill that did not include a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Trump rescinded the Obama-era program, which allows certain immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children to work and go to school here, and gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a solution.

But as the government shutdown went into effect over the weekend, congressional leaders were trading barbs and casting blame, even as a resolution remained nowhere in sight.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (D-N.Y.) didn’t speak to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (R-Ky.) or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Kelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) on the first full day of the shutdown. And Trump kept a low profile in the White House, with Schumer noting on Monday that the two hadn’t spoken since Friday.

That’s when the bipartisan working group took matters into their own hands.

“The attitude was just that we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get this done,” said Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Dem senator: Kavanaugh sides with 'wealthiest special interests' Judge on Trump shortlist boasts stint on Michigan's high court MORE (D-Mich.). The feeling was that “we’re going to talk to leadership and make this happen.”

The coalition huddled Saturday and then again Sunday to hash out a bipartisan plan to reopen the government. The group also remained in constant contact over the phone throughout the weekend.

Senators weren’t crafting their own legislation, but instead focused on how to get 60 votes to reopen the government paired with enough of a promise on immigration for Democrats to feel comfortable moving forward.

“The 20 of us who spent much of the day together — I mean hours literally together — are trying to bridge that gap and trying to rebuild that confidence. A fair amount of my day was spent on one-one-one meetings with senators who are not sitting at that [bipartisan group] table,” said Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsLawmakers target link between wildlife poaching, terror groups Senate adds members to pro-NATO group Sunday shows preview: Trump readies for meeting with Putin MORE (D-Del.).

But the negotiations weren’t over yet. Both parties pitched a proposal to their respective party leaders on Sunday afternoon, in what would be a critical first test for their efforts.

Democrats and Republicans remained tight-lipped as they left Schumer and McConnell’s offices on Sunday afternoon, but there were some glimmers of hope.

“It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to,” Nelson said of Sunday’s bipartisan gathering.

McConnell and Schumer then met around 5 p.m., according to Flake, who enthusiastically tweeted that “Senate leaders are meeting and talking!”

But as the night — and shutdown — wore on, there were still no signs that leadership would accept the deal. Lawmakers including Graham, who was decked out in khakis and a bright orange Clemson hat, trickled in and out of McConnell’s office, where a large-screen TV screen was wheeled in during the NFL playoff games.

Finally, just after 9 p.m., McConnell came to the Senate floor and promised that, if they weren’t able to work out a larger deal, he intended to bring up legislation to address DACA, border security and related issues.

Graham and Flake, who voted no on the last continuing resolution, announced they would support the three-week funding bill.

But Schumer said Democrats weren’t quite ready to accept the deal. So McConnell teed up a procedural vote on the three-week funding bill for Monday at noon.

That gave the bipartisan working group roughly 12 hours to make a final sales pitch to their colleagues. The coalition met one more time in Collins’s office on Monday morning over bagels, muffins and coffee before each party caucused ahead of the noon Senate vote. At one point, cheers and applause could be heard coming from the Democratic meeting room.

Then, just as lawmakers were getting ready to vote, Schumer announced that Democrats would take the deal and support the Feb. 8 continuing resolution, pointing to the DACA commitments made by McConnell. The majority leader promised earlier in the day that he would ensure a level playing field for offering amendments to a DACA bill.

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingLawmakers say Trump tariffs are threatening local newspapers Senate adds members to pro-NATO group Hillicon Valley: Hacker tried to sell military docs on dark web | Facebook fined over Cambridge Analytica | US closer to lifting ZTE ban | Trump, Obama lose followers in Twitter purge | DOJ weighs appeal on AT&T merger MORE (I-Maine), who took part in the talks, called McConnell’s language on Monday morning crucial to helping soothe the nerves of wary Democrats.

The Senate then voted to reopen the government in the late afternoon on Monday, which the House agreed to do shortly after.

Democrats have taken heat from liberals for giving in so quickly. Critics question what they got in the deal, pointing out that McConnell has long said he would put a DACA bill on the floor, while the House is under no obligation to take up whatever the other chamber passes.

Still, leaders and lawmakers believe that the bipartisan working group was a prominent force behind breaking the Senate stalemate. And the band of moderates achieved their primary goal: getting the government up and running.

“The bipartisan group in a very fine way filled the glaring absence of the president in these talks,” Schumer said on Monday.

The coalition says they now have a blueprint for how to reach constructive compromises and are vowing to use similar tactics in future battles over DACA, the budget and other issues.

“Now the real work begins, and I think the role of this group, a bipartisan group of senators, is to come together and say, ‘OK, now what will the bill be? What can we put together as a bipartisan group?” Murkowski said.

As they wrapped up a press scrum off the Senate floor, Manchin hugged Collins and kissed the side of her head.

Jones, of Alabama, exclaimed, “We’re open. We’re open for business!”