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 McConnellEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns 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 SchumerMcConnell-backed Super PAC says nominating Roy Moore would be 'gift wrapping' seat to Dems McConnell vows to 'vigorously' oppose Moore's Senate bid Pelosi: Trump delay on Harriet Tubman is 'an insult to the hopes of millions' MORE (D-N.Y.) said that the struggle for Senate Republicans to take up the House bill makes it “clear” that President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question 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 CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment Jeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump 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 McCarthyTop Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan Ocasio-Cortez on concentration camp remarks: Liz Cheney, GOP 'manipulating pain for political purposes' GOP rep: Trump needs to retaliate against Iran to deter other hostile nations 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 CornynDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget 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 MeadowsGOP moves to block provision banning use of Defense funds for border wall Darrell Issa eyes return to Congress Oversight Republicans: 'Hundreds' of migrants in caravans have criminal histories 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.

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 RyanPaul Ryan praises Trump: 'He's not taking any crap' The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Ocasio-Cortez calls out Steve King, Liz Cheney amid controversy over concentration camp remarks MORE (R-Wis.). Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanOversight Republicans: 'Hundreds' of migrants in caravans have criminal histories Cummings requests interview with Census official over new allegations on citizenship question House Oversight Republicans release parts of Kobach, Trump officials' testimony on census citizenship question 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 FlakeJeff Flake becoming Harvard fellow Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment 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.