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 CollinsGraham: 'Handful' of GOP senators will vote to block Trump's emergency declaration Dems set up Tuesday vote to block Trump's emergency declaration The Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump 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 GrahamTrump says he'll '100 percent' veto measure blocking emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Dems tee up Tuesday vote against Trump's emergency declaration | GOP expects few defections | Trump doubles number of troops staying in Syria to 400 On The Money: Dems set Tuesday vote on Trump's emergency declaration | Most Republicans expected to back Trump | Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown drama | Powell heading before Congress MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters, referring to the fourth floor Dirksen office as "Switzerland."

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Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy: Trump ends talks with California on car emissions | Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal | Climate PAC backing Inslee in possible 2020 run Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal Gabbard cites ‘concerns’ about ‘vagueness’ of Green New Deal 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 MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump's emergency declaration MORE (Alaska), chairmen like Tennessee Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump's emergency declaration GOP Sen. Collins says she'll back resolution to block Trump's emergency declaration MORE and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE, and Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePoll: 33% of Kentucky voters approve of McConnell Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union 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 McCaskillPoll: 33% of Kentucky voters approve of McConnell McCaskill: Lindsey Graham 'has lost his mind' Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor MORE (Mo.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William Nelson2020 party politics in Puerto Rico There is no winning without Latinos as part of your coalition Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms MORE (Fla.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (Ind.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Kaine asks Shanahan if military families would be hurt by moving .6B for border wall MORE (Va.) — who are all up for reelection this fall — as well as Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharKlobuchar ate salad with her comb, ordered aide to clean it: report Sanders endorses Oakland teachers strike Dem strategist says Clinton ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in 2020 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 SchumerDon’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win MORE (D-N.Y.) didn’t speak to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Trump selects Kelly Craft for United Nations ambassador Union leader says Green New Deal would make infrastructure bill ‘absolutely impossible’ MORE (R-Ky.) or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFive takeaways from McCabe’s allegations against Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump 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 PetersDems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt Lawmakers push to award Aretha Franklin the Congressional Gold Medal Congress sends bill renewing anti-terrorism program to Trump 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 CoonsTrump got in Dem’s face over abortion at private meeting: report Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Actor Chris Evans meets with Democratic senators before State of the Union 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 KingTexas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry Warner, Burr split on committee findings on collusion 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!”