Dems strengthen hand in shutdown fight

Democrats strengthened their hand in the shutdown battle with Republicans and President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE after six GOP senators broke ranks and backed a bill to reopen the government that did not include money for Trump’s border wall.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) and Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates Beware the tea party of the left Bottom line MORE (N.Y.) are talking about a deal after Republicans sent the message to Vice President Pence at a Thursday lunch meeting that they want the shutdown to end as soon as possible.

A GOP source familiar with the meeting said McConnell told Pence “we should never have had a shutdown” and “they don’t work.”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve told you, there’s no education in the second kick of a mule,” the GOP source said, summarizing McConnell’s message to the vice president.

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Republican lawmakers hope Trump can win some concessions from Democrats, but they say the shutdown has become intolerable and they want to see a resolution as soon as possible.

“I reminded colleagues that I was feeling a very keen sense of urgency on this because Alaska has the highest number of federal workers that are impacted by the partial shutdown and we needed to get this open now,” Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Manchin, Tester voice opposition to carbon tax Rachel Levine sworn in as first openly transgender four-star officer in health corps MORE (R-Alaska) said, recalling her comments at the meeting Pence attended.

“There was a lot of frustration expressed about the situation we find ourselves in,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas), who was also present.

Pence asked the GOP conference to stay unified in opposition to the Democratic proposal to reopen the government without funding for the border wall, but the administration received a rebuke moments later when six Senate Republicans voted with Schumer.

The defectors were Sens. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE (Tenn.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsEmanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter Rachel Levine sworn in as first openly transgender four-star officer in health corps MORE (Maine), Cory GardnerCory GardnerColorado remap plan creates new competitive district Protecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm MORE (Colo.), Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonHerschel Walker calls off fundraiser with woman who had swastika in Twitter profile Georgia reporter says state will 'continue to be a premier battleground' Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms MORE (Ga.), Murkowski and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump-backed bills on election audits, illegal voting penalties expected to die in Texas legislature The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals MORE (Utah.).

Collins later tweeted “this shutdown must come to an end” and called it her “top priority.” 

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Wednesday showed Trump’s approval rating at its lowest level in more than a year and a majority of Americans blaming him for the shutdown. 

Sixty percent of the survey’s respondents, including 54 percent of independents, said Trump has “a great deal” of responsibility for the shutdown.

Trump’s weakened position was reflected by his decision announced Wednesday evening to delay his State of the Union address until after the shutdown ends.

Only hours earlier, he defiantly insisted that he would find an alternative site for the annual address after Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Fixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates MORE (D-Calif.) denied him access to the House. 

With Trump and Pelosi barely on speaking terms, GOP lawmakers hope that they can drive a wedge between Senate and House Democrats and negotiate a deal separately with Schumer.

“To get a result here, we have to have the sides at the table,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema MORE (S.D.), describing the Trump-Pelosi relationship as a “tough dynamic.”

“One way or another we got to get out of this,” he added. “This is a no-win for anybody.” 

“Right now it’s Schumer and McConnell,” Cornyn said after the vote. “There are a lot of different ways to skin the cat. It just depends on what Sen. Schumer and Sen. McConnell think they can agree to.”

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunIndiana's GOP senator: Chicago police who defied vaccine mandate 'deserve respect' Bottom line Biden taps former Indiana Sen. Donnelly as ambassador to Vatican MORE (R-Ind.) said that Senate leaders need to help break the impasse between Trump and Pelosi.

“That’s what we’re hoping because we all want to get it done,” he said.

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McConnell and Schumer sat down for a meeting in the majority leader’s office Thursday afternoon after the six Republicans voted for a Democratic proposal to reopen the government until Feb. 8 without providing the $5.7 billion Trump has demanded for a border wall.

“We’re talking,” Schumer said as he emerged from McConnell’s office, refusing to share any details.

Democrats say the vote was a sign of their party’s growing leverage in the shutdown fight and predicted that GOP efforts to split Schumer and Pelosi will fail.

“They’re attached at the hip. He’s not going to do anything to undermine her,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment on Schumer’s relationship with Pelosi.

Only one Democrat, centrist Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Progressives see budget deal getting close after Biden meeting Democrats at odds with Manchin over child tax credit provision MORE (W.Va.), voted both for the GOP plan to reopen the government and to fill Trump’s funding request for the wall.

A second Democratic senator said Schumer feels he has all the political leverage in his talks with McConnell. 

“Chuck’s pretty confident about where the numbers are heading. I don’t think he feels a lot of pressure to negotiate. He feels that eventually [Republicans] are going to take a position to open the government,” said the source, who requested anonymity to discuss Schumer’s message to colleagues.

Just as Schumer predicted to his colleagues, a group of Republicans, including Murkowski, Collins, Gardner, Isakson and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (S.C.), introduced a clean three-week spending bill to reopen the government.

Their proposal does not include disaster relief funding that was attached to the Democratic stopgap measure that the six Republicans supported.

Graham briefed Trump on the proposal Thursday afternoon.

“I told him we’re talking about a three-week [continuing resolution] and all of us believe if we have three weeks with the government open that we could find a way forward to produce a bill that he would sign,” Graham said.

Trump released a statement shortly afterward asking Democrats to include what he called a “pro-rated down payment for the wall.”

But Democratic leaders have said for weeks now that they will not support any funding for a border wall even though they will agree to additional funds for other border security measures.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden MORE (R-N.C.), a Trump ally who faces a potentially tough reelection race in 2020, suggested that McConnell and Schumer could reach an agreement that spreads extra security funding to ports of entry in addition to the U.S.-Mexico border.

He said a deal could hinge on “better clarity on how the allocation of the border security would be programed, particularly with points of entry and a number of areas where we seem to have agreement.” 

Pelosi suggested strengthening infrastructure and roads at ports of entry when she delivered a response to Trump’s address to the nation on Jan. 8 asking Congress to fund the border wall. 

“We can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry; we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border,” she said.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Wednesday said Democrats could agree to as much as $5.7 billion in border security funding as long as it’s not included for a physical wall. 

Instead, he said Democrats could back a “smart wall.”

A Senate Republican aide said GOP lawmakers could offer extra money for Democratic priorities, such as for schools in economically depressed urban areas, as a trade-off for a down payment on the wall or a bump up in general border security funding. 

Jordain Carney contributed.