GOP senators challenge Trump on shutdown strategy

Several Senate Republicans on Wednesday challenged President Trump on his strategy for ending a 19-day shutdown during a closed-door meeting where they expressed specific concerns over the harm it is causing to federal workers and the economy. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who faces a tough reelection in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, said she asked Trump to consider a bipartisan compromise that would give certain immigrants, known as Dreamers, a path to citizenship in exchange for border security money.

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“I suggested that we take a look at the package that we put together last February and brought to the floor as a possible compromise,” Collins said, recounting her conversation with Trump during a closed-door lunch meeting in the Capitol. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) warned the president that the shutdown is having an impact on industries in her state that depend on federal regulation, such as fishing. 

“When government is shut down, there are consequences and people are starting to feel those consequences,” Murkowski said, recalling her exchange with the president. 

“I addressed the things that are very local to us. It’s not just those who don’t receive a federal paycheck on Friday, but there are other consequences for those of us who utilize [federal] services whether it’s those who are seeking to get a fish scale certified so you can deliver product,” she added. 

Collins and Murkowski have bucked Trump and their party before, but the president also heard worries from other voices.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a leading moral voice in the conference, spoke of the hardships faced by federal workers, according to a Republican source familiar with the meeting.

Lankford’s decision to speak up behind closed doors to remind the president about the human impact of the shutdown is notable because he has supported Trump’s position publicly.

In a CNN interview Wednesday, Lankford said any agreement on border security must include specific funding for a border wall or a “physical pedestrian barrier.”  

“You can’t say we’re going to do everything with technology,” he said. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said his colleagues “expressed concern about the impact [the shutdown] is having on federal workers” during their meeting with Trump. 

About 25 percent of the federal government has been shut down or hobbled since funding expired on Dec. 22. 

Senate Republicans by and large are hesitant to undercut Trump, and there appears to be no chance for now that they would seek to override the White House. Only a handful of Senate Republicans have said they would back a measure to reopen the government without funding for the wall.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (S.D.) said he’s open to finding a broader immigration compromise to reopen the government, but he would not support reopening the government while the talks go on unless there is a strong indication from Democrats that they would agree to something to substantially improve border security.

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Yet as the partial government shutdown drags on and the consequences pile up, Republicans are starting to get antsy about finding an endgame. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Barr’s first task as AG: Look at former FBI leaders’ conduct Debate builds over making Mueller report public MORE (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most outspoken Senate allies, hosted a meeting in his office Wednesday afternoon to explore the possibility of a compromise on immigration and border security that could help reopen federal agencies. 

After Trump traveled to the Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans, he and GOP leaders from both chambers touted their unity and criticized Democrats for not budging in their opposition to funding for a wall on the Mexican border.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Senate GOP eyes 'nuclear option' for Trump nominees next week Taiwan’s President Tsai should be invited to address Congress MORE (R-Ky.), who addressed reporters alongside the president at the Capitol, insisted that his GOP colleagues are “behind the president.” 

Later, the president said a separate White House meeting with congressional leaders had been a “total waste of time” and blasted Democrats as intransigent. His position was backed up by GOP leaders, who in public remarks echoed the president’s criticisms.

Yet behind the scenes, there is some angst among GOP lawmakers about the damage the 19-day shutdown may be causing to their party.

A Senate Republican aide said lawmakers are “getting frustrated” because the talks between Trump, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiElise Stefanik seeks to tackle GOP’s women ‘crisis’ ahead of 2020 Our legislators must commit to making children a priority Dreamer: Dems 'should absolutely not' take Trump's immigration deal MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerProtecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress Baldwin's Trump plays 'Deal or No Deal' with shutdown on 'Saturday Night Live' Sunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal MORE (N.Y.) appear to be going nowhere.

The White House has made a concerted effort this week to unify House and Senate Republicans, and Trump urged concerned lawmakers to stick with him in the standoff.

“He urged us to remain unified,” said Murkowski, who wants government agencies to reopen while negotiations between the White House and Democrats on border wall funding continue.  

“I want us to figure out how we can provide for security in this country — meet the president’s priority there, address the humanitarian issues — but do so while we have a functioning government. Being in partial shutdown is a partial shutdown and so I’d like to get that part of the issue addressed,” she said. 

Rubio also said Trump’s main message to Senate Republicans was “stick together,” while Trump, speaking to reporters after the meeting, downplayed any friction within the party.

“I would say that we have a very, very unified party,” Trump said.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said Trump spent the first part of the meeting talking about his national security strategy related to Syria and North Korea. The subject of the border wall didn’t come up until after the first half hour of the meeting, according to him.

“His conversation was about how things are going with North Korea and Syria,” he said. “The president did brag about Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo. He’s doing a fabulous job.”

Throughout her career, Collins has consistently opposed shutting down the government to extract concessions, calling shutdowns the “ultimate failure to govern.” 

She said the president was cool to her proposal for a compromise, insisting he would need a substantial increase in border funding.

The bipartisan immigration proposal Collins recommended to Trump would create a pathway to citizenship for about 1.8 million people and provide $25 billion for broad border security. 

That measure, formally sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Angus King (I-Maine), fell six votes short in February of the 60-vote hurdle needed to overcome a filibuster. It garnered support from eight Republicans and 46 Democrats at the time.

“The president is very convinced of his position and the necessity of the $5.7 billion he has requested to build a border wall,” Collins told reporters. 

Collins said she hopes the standoff will end in the next few days.

“I certainly hope so because Friday is pay day, and I don’t want hundreds of thousands of federal employees to be going without their paychecks,” she said.

Jordain Carney contributed.

Updated at 5:25 p.m.