Dems strengthen hand in shutdown fight

Democrats strengthened their hand in the shutdown battle with Republicans and President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBarr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation Roger Stone witness alleges Trump targeted prosecutors in 'vile smear job' 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 MurkowskiDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' 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 CornynSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Booker, Cornyn introduce bill to fund school nutrition programs Three Senate primaries to watch on Super Tuesday 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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (Tenn.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Toward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates MORE (Maine), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Impeachment fallout threatens to upend battle for Senate MORE (Colo.), Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonProgressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Overnight Health Care: Trump budget calls for cutting Medicaid, ACA by T | Trump proposes removing FDA authority over tobacco | Lawmakers frustrated by lack of emergency funds for coronavirus Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment MORE (Ga.), Murkowski and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Donald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders on the rise as Nevada debate looms Lawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Malaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations 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 ThuneMcConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills Senate votes to rein in Trump's power to attack Iran As many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran 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 BraunSenators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals Plan to probe Bidens sparks GOP divisions The Hill's Morning Report - Trump acquitted; Romney breaks ranks on impeachment 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 ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinLawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit 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 GrahamGraham warned Pentagon chief about consequences of Africa policy: report Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony US defense chief says Taliban deal 'looks very promising' but not without risk 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 TillisErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Trump pick for Fed seat takes bipartisan fire Three Senate primaries to watch on Super Tuesday 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.