Nerves fray as shutdown talks at impasse
Talks between Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and congressional Republican leaders have broken down, raising anxieties among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about finding a way to end the government shutdown.
Schumer had not spoken to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as of 8 p.m. Saturday evening, the shutdown’s first day.
Neither side showed any signs of backing down when the Senate adjourned Saturday evening without a deal in sight.
While both sides are furiously playing the blame game, McConnell thinks he has the upper hand and plans to raise pressure on Democrats by forcing votes on resolutions to reopen the government.
He has introduced a three-week stopgap measure funding the government until Feb. 8, a week shorter than the House-passed spending bill that failed Friday evening.
“Fewer than half of Democrats say that dealing with DACA is more urgent than keeping the government open,” McConnell said in a floor speech, pointing to a recent CNN survey about the shutdown and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Trump ended last year. The program shields certain immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation.
“I think our friends on the other side took some bad advice, really bad advice. I would hate to have to be trying to explain this myself,” he argued in another floor statement.
There are doubts within each party over who is winning the fight for public opinion, however, which could have lasting implications for this fall’s midterms.
Five Democrats running for reelection in states won by Trump in 2016 voted against their party in a Friday night vote to keep the government open.
“I think it’s a loser for everybody, but it’s probably more of a loser if you’re in control,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), acknowledged to The Washington Post earlier this month.
Schumer has also struck a bold posture, assuring his nervous colleagues that Republicans will get the blame for a shutdown.
But some Democrats are getting nervous about using a tactic that traditionally has been associated with Republicans: forcing a government shutdown to win a major policy concession.
“I really hate the idea of closing the government,” said one Democratic senator, who nevertheless argued that the risky tactic was necessary.
“We need to do it with this cast of characters,” the lawmaker said, referring to Trump and GOP leaders in Congress. “Trump has shown he’s perfectly willing to let immigrants become collateral damage.”
Democratic anxiety has been heightened by the refusal of GOP leaders to give any ground. Schumer called for a meeting between Trump and the top-ranking leaders in both chambers to resolve the impasse swiftly, but was met with silence.
“I’m concerned that we don’t have an exit strategy,” a Democratic aide told NBC News on Saturday. “I think that it seems naive to think that Republicans will do the right thing here and compromise.”
Now some Democrats worry the shutdown may stretch out for days, if not weeks.
Faced with a startling lack of progress on the leadership level, rank-and-file senators in both parties tried to take things into their own hands.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) shuffled between Schumer’s and McConnell’s offices in a stab at shuttle diplomacy.
They hope McConnell will promise to take up an immigration reform bill under an open amendment process next month, paving the way for a deal to reopen the government.
“He’s made a commitment for the first time to include immigration in the list of things we’ll take up. He says we’re close. I agree with him,” Graham said of the GOP leader.
Several Senate Democrats on Saturday said they would be willing to accept a government funding measure that does not include language to protect an estimated 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, known as “Dreamers,” from deportation.
But they insist that Republicans must agree to more funding for community health centers, increased money for disaster relief and higher federal spending caps.
Sen. Jon Tester (D), who faces a tough reelection this year in Montana, a state Trump won by 20 points, said he would be willing to pass a stopgap measure if Republicans commit to take up immigration legislation, but warned that: “there has to be more to it than that.”
“There also needs to be commitment to a budget that goes to Sept. 30 and there are some health-care issues and some southern border issues … that need to be dealt with,” said Tester, who voted to block the stopgap measure Friday night that was approved by the House.
Another Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss internal caucus negotiations, said a potential deal could reopen the government, provide more money for community health centers, boost disaster relief for California, Colorado and Puerto Rico and increase spending caps for defense and nondefense programs.
But the lawmaker warned that the party would be divided by a government funding deal that gave Democrats a variety of concessions on fiscal issues but did not protect immigrants exposed by the repeal of DACA.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a leading player in the immigration talks, said a spending bill that does not help Dreamers would not end the standoff.
“I don’t think that’s adequate to end it, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” he said of the prospect of Republicans providing more money for Democratic priorities and a promise to debate an immigration bill next month.
Trump rescinded the Obama-era DACA program in September and gave Congress a March 5 deadline to replace it.
Senate Democrats discussed their next steps at a lunchtime meeting off the Senate chamber.
While some Democrats expressed potential support for a deal that set immigration aside, others voiced their opposition — dampening the prospect of reaching a compromise with Republicans anytime soon.
“We want to keep as unified as possible,” said the Democratic senator.
A bipartisan group of moderates met in the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) later in the day to discuss a deal to reopen the government that could be presented to Republican and Democratic leaders.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who voted for the four-week stopgap measure on Friday and faces reelection in a state Trump carried by 42 points, told reporters that the group of moderates hope to present a plan to leaders on Sunday.
He said that as many as 18 or 19 senators may sign onto the proposal.
“We’re trying to see if we can talk to the leadership on both sides and tell them what we think is a path forward,” Manchin told Bloomberg News.
He said that immigration would have to be “part of the package.”
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