Centrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter

Efforts by centrist lawmakers to break away from their party leaders and build a compromise that would end the government shutdown are floundering.

The failure to reach a consensus outside of leadership is another indication that the shutdown won’t end unless a deal is struck by the principals: Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDonald Trump proved himself by winning fight for border security Trump should beware the 'clawback' Congress The national emergency will haunt Republicans come election season MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration MORE (D-N.Y.) and President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE.

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The centrists’ idea was straightforward and simple: Write a letter urging Trump to reopen the government for three weeks and, in that time, negotiate a compromise on border security.

But Trump earlier this week said he rejected a similar idea, and Vice President Pence informed GOP senators the White House opposed the plan.

Senate Republicans say the letter-writing effort wasn’t helped by the fact that Schumer urged House Democrats at a caucus meeting Wednesday to pressure Senate Republicans to sign the letter.

As of Wednesday afternoon, only a handful of Senate Republicans and Democrats had signed the letter to Trump, and it was uncertain whether the missive would even be sent.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate MORE (D-W.Va.), who has signed the letter and attended bipartisan meetings in hopes of finding a breakthrough, said the goal is to have 20 lawmakers in each conference — Republican and Democratic — sign the letter.

But the effort fell far short of that ambitious goal. One Republican aide said the letter had 10 signatures on Wednesday afternoon, but cautioned the number is in flux.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration GOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day MORE (R-N.C.), a key lawmaker who faces a tough reelection in 2020, said Wednesday afternoon that he would not sign it, expressing doubt it would lead to a positive result.

“My concern is we haven’t — beyond just acknowledging the president’s request — we really haven’t set any parameters,” he said. “Without some sort of agreement in principle on what would be on the table for negotiated settlement, I just don’t see it producing a productive outcome.”

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A draft of the letter asks Trump to join the bipartisan group of senators “in supporting a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) of three weeks to give Congress time to develop and vote on a broad bipartisan agreement that addresses your request.” The senators pledge “during those three weeks, we will make our best efforts following regular order in the appropriate committees and mark up bipartisan legislation related to your request.”

Tillis, however, said three weeks would not be enough time to hash out a compromise, noting that Congress has debated illegal immigration and border security for years without much progress.

“Twenty-one days around here when you’re in these contentious situations is a very short period of time, particularly on a subject we’ve been debating for 40 years,” Tillis said.

Many Senate Republicans have argued for weeks that they want a clear indication from Democrats that Trump will get more money for border fencing in exchange for reopening the government.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyHow the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration MORE (R-Ala.) told reporters that he would not sign the letter and said it “could be tilting at windmills,” although he conceded there’s a slim chance it might “move the Democrats in sitting down with Trump.”

“I think things look a little bleak right now,” he said.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Congress must step up to protect Medicare home health care MORE (R-Maine), who hosted a few of her fellow Republican centrists in a meeting Wednesday morning to find an end to the shutdown, admitted “it’s been very hard to determine what is the magic elixir here.”

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterHow the border deal came together GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Border talks stall as another shutdown looms MORE (D-Mont.), another potential swing vote who represents a state Trump won by 20 points in 2016, said Wednesday that he hadn’t yet signed the letter and didn’t seem in a rush to join the effort: “I think what they’re trying to do is get a bipartisan group on. If I’m asked, I’ll sign on to it, but I’m not going to wedge my way in. I’ll let them do their work.”

One reason the organizers of the letter — Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Warren: Officials have duty ‘to invoke 25th amendment’ if they think Trump is unfit MORE (R-S.C.) and 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.) — may not have yet approached Tester is they’re trying to get colleagues to sign the letter in bipartisan pairs.

At the moment, there’s a shortage of GOP support in the face of opposition from Trump, as Tillis’s refusal to sign on shows.

Pelosi and Schumer, meanwhile, feel confident they are winning the public relations battle with Trump.

“An overwhelming majority of Americans think that the government should not be shut down over a wall. Even a substantial number of people who support the wall say don’t shut down the government to get the wall,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

A CNN poll released Wednesday showed Trump losing support among one of his most reliable constituencies, white Americans who don’t have college degrees.

The poll, conducted by SSRS, showed that only 45 percent of this demographic said they approved of Trump’s job performance, a drop from the 54 percent who said they approved of his job performance in early December, before the shutdown. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday also showed Trump’s approval among white voters without college degrees ticking down slightly since the shutdown started last month. The survey showed Trump’s rating among this group dipping from 56 percent to 53 percent. 

Schumer highlighted Trump’s weakening numbers in a meeting with Democratic colleagues last week, according to a senator who participated.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSmaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats MORE (D-Ohio), who is considering running for president, warned that if Democrats buckle, “Trump will do this again and again and again and again.”

Manchin on Wednesday said Schumer has neither encouraged nor discouraged the efforts by centrists to find a compromise.

“Not at all. Chuck hasn’t said a word,” he said.

“I’m sure he’s aware of the letter,” Manchin added. “And if he’d been objectionable, I’m sure I would have heard loudly and clearly.”

Jordain Carney contributed.