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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 PelosiThe growing threat of China's lawfare Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Biden: 'Prince Philip gladly dedicated himself to the people of the UK' MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally H.R. 1/S. 1: Democrats defend their majorities, not honest elections McCarthy asks FBI, CIA for briefing after two men on terror watchlist stopped at border MORE (D-N.Y.) and President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS US raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks 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 ManchinJoe ManchinRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS Five takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal Parkland parent pressures Manchin on gun reform: 'You represent the nation' 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 TillisThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings GOP senator recovering from surgery for prostate cancer Congress must address the toxic exposure our veterans have endured 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 ShelbyFive takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate 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) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate Lawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan 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 GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike Sanders expresses 'serious concerns' with Biden's defense increase MORE (R-S.C.) and Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsFive takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start 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 BrownA bold fix for US international taxation of corporations Democrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure Former Ohio health director won't run for Senate 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.