Senate agrees to last-ditch talks, but no clear path over shutdown

Senators agreed to advance a House-passed government funding bill on Friday evening as part of an effort to make room for negotiations and ensure that a shutdown starting Saturday is brief.

Senators said they agreed to take up the House bill, which includes $5.7 billion for the border, not because they had a deal on how to avert a partial shutdown at the end of Friday but to allow talks to continue in good faith.

The Senate will not vote again on a funding bill unless it's on a bill that Democrats and the White House can agree on, senators said.

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A partial shutdown appeared inevitable on Friday evening after the House and Senate adjourned for the night. The House is not expected to return until about noon Saturday — 12 hours after the deadline to avert a lapse in funding.

“The Senate has voted to proceed to legislation before us ... in order to preserve maximum flexibility for productive conversations to continue between the White House and our Democratic colleagues,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' MORE (R-Ky.) said from the Senate floor.

The decision came after a vote on taking up the House bill was held open for hours as senators scrambled to reach a deal on moving forward. The measure remained a few GOP votes short of the necessary number needed to advance.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (D-N.Y.) said that the struggle for Senate Republicans to take up the House bill makes it “clear” that President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE’s U.S.-Mexico border wall can’t get 60 votes — or even a simple majority — in the Senate.

But he added that he was willing to keep talking about how to fund approximately 25 percent of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security.

“We are willing to continue discussions on those proposals with the leader, the president, the speaker of the House and the Democratic leader of the House. All five are necessary to get something done,” Schumer said.

McConnell and Schumer’s announcement came after the chamber voted 50-50 to take up the stopgap bill that passed the House on Thursday night. Vice President Pence broke the tie in the Senate.

The agreement to take up the House bill doesn’t guarantee senators will be able to craft a funding deal, and McConnell left the Senate for the night shortly before 8 p.m. while telling reporters that "constructive talks are underway."

The House bill will still need to overcome a 60-vote filibuster if it is to be able to clear the Senate, and Democrats have said they will not support the seven-week continuing resolution (CR) with funding for the border wall.

Still, by agreeing to take up the House bill, versus simply voting it down, it saves the Senate time if they are able to get an agreement and avoids forcing both sides through politically heated test votes.

“The understanding that has been reached … is we’re not voting on anything else in this chamber relative to this issue until a global agreement has been reached between the president and these two leaders and the leader of the House,” said Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.).

“What this does, I think, is push this ahead to a negotiation that yields a result and does the best we can to keep from shutting down the government or if it does shut down, shutting down very briefly,” he added.

Where Congress goes next is unclear.

Neither Schumer nor McConnell described a path to how they get to an actual agreement or if they could reach one to limit the impact of the partial shutdown.

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Separately, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyWatchdog: Custodial staff alleged sexual harassment in lawmakers' offices John Legend, Chrissy Teigen lash out at Trump at Dem retreat Republicans call for ex-Trump lawyer Cohen to be referred to DOJ MORE (R-Calif.) advised members that there are currently no votes scheduled for Saturday in the lower chamber but that lawmakers should stay in town pending a breakthrough in negotiations in the Senate.

Senators said Friday evening that there were “high-level” negotiations taking place about a potential deal to fund the rest of the government through the end of the fiscal year instead of just a stopgap measure funding it for a couple months.

Congress still needs to pass seven of its appropriations bills. But lawmakers have said for weeks that six of the bills are done, with the major remaining point being funding for the border.

“I’m hopeful they’ll have a full bill, along with disaster relief funds that would be popular,” Sen. John CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said when asked if lawmakers were aiming for a stopgap bill or legislation to fund the rest of the government until the end of September.

Lawmakers are opening the door to lowering the amount of border funding from the $5.7 billion that passed the House on Thursday to $1.6 billion, the amount in the Senate’s Homeland Security bill.

In the House, a number of conservative Republicans said they were open to supporting a lesser number, while other GOP voices said it would be wise for Republicans to accept the $1.6 billion.

“In my business, something’s better than nothing,” said Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today CPAC attendees say Biden poses greatest threat to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall MORE (R-Texas).

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (R-N.C.), one of the conservative ringleaders encouraging Trump to fight for the wall, called the $1.6 billion figure "unacceptable." But he also acknowledged that if Trump were to publicly back something, "certainly" some conservatives would come along.
 
One conservative said Republicans better take what they can’t get now because it won’t get better after Jan. 3, when Democrats take over the House.
 
Cornyn predicated the most likely outcome of the funding fight would be the Senate-level funding of $1.6 billion but with “flexibility” for how it’s used.
  
“I think it will be for border security … whatever Senate appropriations bill was. [But] that it shows flexibility for how it can be used is the most likely outcome,” he said.
 
Some Democratic leaders quickly vowed to support the $1.6 billion.
 
“I would,” said Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Democratic whip.

The $1.6 billion figure, however, would likely erode some support from liberal Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who have opposed even $1 more for wall construction.

Rep. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaBorder Dems introduce bill to process refugee claims in Central America How Pelosi is punishing some critics while rewarding others New Dem caucus chairman: Some wall is good, but not new wall MORE (D-Texas), who represents a border district in Texas, emphasized that he makes no distinction between funding for so-called pedestrian fencing and that designated for a wall.

“It is a wall,” Vela said of the fencing.

But lawmakers are running out of time if they want to get an agreement to prevent a partial shutdown, which begins at midnight. Without a deal, roughly 25 percent of the government will experience a lapse in funding.

“I just can’t tell you if that’s going to happen in two hours, or five hours or eight hours,” Cornyn said, adding that it’s his “guess” that an agreement is hours away not days.

Corker recommended that reporters not hang around the Capitol to wait for an announcement, adding, “If I were all y’all I’d go have a scotch.”

The House on Friday night voted to have the chamber meet again Saturday at noon, over protests from Democrats who wanted to gather earlier than that, so they wouldn’t have to stay in Washington a moment longer than necessary.

Some Republican lawmakers had floated the idea of passing a very short-term continuing resolution — perhaps three days — to prevent a partial shutdown while negotiations continued.

But Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryDems challenge bank CEOs on post-crisis reforms Wells Fargo CEO steps down amid calls for removal House panel approves marijuana banking bill MORE (R-N.C.) said a days-long resolution was not under discussion. Any such call would be made by the White House, McHenry said. 

Some lawmakers expressed new optimism Friday evening about getting a deal, a U-turn from Friday morning when Trump took to Twitter to blame Democrats for a partial shutdown and Schumer fired back that the president could throw a “temper tantrum” but would “own” a partial closing of the government.

Part of the optimism is being driven by Schumer meeting late Friday afternoon with Pence, incoming acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.

Cornyn said he was “feeling better” about the chances of avoiding a partial shutdown after the Senate Democratic leader met with the trio of administration officials.

“I’m so happy about it,” Cornyn said, adding that senators are thinking “positive thoughts.”

Pence, Kushner and Mulvaney also traveled to the House side of the Capitol where they headed into office of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.). Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanOvernight Health Care: DOJ charges doctors over illegal opioid prescriptions | Cummings accuses GOP of obstructing drug pricing probe | Sanders courts Republican voters with 'Medicare for All' | Dems probe funding of anti-abortion group Cummings accuses Oversight Republicans of obstructing drug price probe Schumer staffer-turned-wrestling coach focus of new documentary MORE (R-Ohio), who called for Republicans to reject the Senate’s seven-week bill, were also spotted heading into Ryan’s office. 

“The agreement is to sit down in good faith negotiations and quit the partisan gaming,” added Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family MORE (R-Ariz.) when asked about the deal.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), an ally of Trump’s in the Senate, said lawmakers had been working throughout the day to “break through this logjam.”

“Nobody was talking to anybody in the middle of the day,” Perdue said. “We’ve gotten to a point where both sides can see a way through here to be reasonable.”

– Mike Lillis, Scott Wong and Melanie Zanona contributed.
 
Updated at 10:09 p.m.