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 CollinsGrassley panel scraps Kavanaugh hearing, warns committee will vote without deal Collins 'appalled' by Trump tweet about Kavanaugh accuser Poll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it 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 GrahamKim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' Collins: Kavanaugh accuser should 'reconsider,' testify on Monday MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters, referring to the fourth floor Dirksen office as "Switzerland."

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCook Political Report moves Texas Senate race to ‘toss-up’ The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination 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 MurkowskiMurkowski says she’ll wait until Ford testifies before making decision on Kavanaugh Alaska gov, lieutenant gov come out against Kavanaugh The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh MORE (Alaska), chairmen like Tennessee Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke MORE and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE, and Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGrassley panel scraps Kavanaugh hearing, warns committee will vote without deal Coulter mocks Kavanaugh accuser: She'll only testify 'from a ski lift' Poll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it 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 McCaskill'Kavanaugh' chants erupt at Trump rally in Missouri The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh, accuser say they’re prepared to testify Drug companies will love Trump's plan to get rid of drug rebates — the consumers will hate it MORE (Mo.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonPolitical shenanigans mask true problems in Puerto Rico The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Kavanaugh controversy consumes Washington | Kavanaugh slated to testify Monday | Allegations shake up midterms MORE (Fla.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampGOP Senate candidate: Allegations against Kavanaugh 'absurd' The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world MORE (Ind.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSherrod Brown says he's 'not actively considering' running for president The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — GOP again has momentum on Kavanaugh rollercoaster Poll: Kaine leads GOP challenger by 19 points in Va. Senate race MORE (Va.) — who are all up for reelection this fall — as well as Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls GOP in striking distance to retake Franken seat 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 SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (D-N.Y.) didn’t speak to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP, Kavanaugh accuser struggle to reach deal GOP making counteroffer to Kavanaugh accuser The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins MORE (R-Ky.) or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act GOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign 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 PetersLawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin The farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act Bipartisanship alive and well, protecting critical infrastructure 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 CoonsJudiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Sunday shows preview: White House officials on offensive in wake of anonymous NY Times op-ed 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 KingRestoring our national parks would be a bipartisan win for Congress Restore our parks Renaming Senate office building after McCain sparks GOP backlash 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!”