A new bipartisan group of rank-and-file senators has formed to discuss how to end the weeks-long government shutdown, with talks between congressional leaders and the White House at a standstill.
But unless President Trump and Democratic leaders find common ground, it’s unclear what the rank-and-file talks could yield, and even some participants were downbeat after the group held its first meeting late Monday afternoon in the basement of the Capitol. About a dozen lawmakers were in attendance, split between Democrats and Republicans.
“I sat there for an hour and didn’t know what the hell it was about,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
Manchin said that “nothing seems to be working” to bring an end to the partial government shutdown over Trump’s demands for money for his border wall.
“Well I think what’s important is to recognize that you’ve got a bipartisan group of folks that are very focused on forging a path through the wilderness,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has called for the government to be reopened while the dispute over Trump’s wall money is hashed out. “We’re not just going to sit back and do nothing.”
Even though prospects were uncertain, the group’s creation was a sign senators of both parties are eager to end the shutdown, even if it means taking matters into their own hands amid an impasse between top Democrats and Trump.
With the shutdown entering its fourth week, Trump remains dug in on his demands for $5.7 billion to build hundreds of miles of new walls along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats are refusing to give him anywhere near that amount.
An effort last week led by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) collapsed after Vice President Pence announced publicly that Trump wasn’t interested in a deal involving trading wall funding for protections for unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Graham attended Monday’s meeting of the bipartisan negotiation group. Other attendees included Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
But outside the meeting, the shutdown debate remained cantankerous. Trump on Monday called on Democrats to agree to his demands, as he reiterated he had no plans to call a national emergency to build the wall by circumventing Congress.
A national emergency declaration had appeared a possible route to ending the shutdown last week, before Trump backed off the idea Friday. He also said he wasn’t interested in an idea floated by Graham to reopen the government temporarily while negotiations continue.
“The Democrats should say, ‘We want border security. We have to build a wall otherwise you can’t have border security.’ And we should get on with our lives,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “The Democrats are stopping us, and they’re stopping a lot of great people from getting paid. All they have to do is say, ‘We want border security.’ That automatically means a wall or a barrier.”
Democrats say they’re open to negotiating on border security — but only after Trump agrees to reopen the government. The House, under newly elevated Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has spent the last two weeks passing spending bills to reopen portions of the federal government that have nothing to do with the wall, an effort that will continue this week.
The House also plans to pass two stopgap spending bills this week, one to reopen the government until Feb. 1 and the other through Feb. 28, in renewed attempts to pressure Trump and Republicans to end the shutdown and provide them more options to act.
But Trump has made clear he would veto legislation to open the government unless it includes wall money, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he won’t bring anything up for a vote that Trump doesn’t support.
McConnell lashed out at Pelosi and Democrats in a speech on the Senate floor Monday, arguing that “Speaker Pelosi and her far-left base decided that the politics of obstruction would come before common-sense policymaking.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded a short time later in his own floor speech.
“Now, Leader McConnell is trying to blame the current speaker of the House. He is way out to lunch on that one,” Schumer said. “This House has voted to reopen the government. It’s the Senate that hasn’t done it because Leader McConnell won’t bring the bill to the floor.”
The shutdown dragged into its 24th day Monday, with about 25 percent of the federal government shuttered after funding ran dry Dec. 22. Some 800,000 federal workers are now going without pay, even though many of them have to continue working because their jobs have been deemed essential.
The last round of talks between Trump and congressional leaders collapsed last week after Trump walked out on them when Pelosi refused his demands to pay for the wall. No new talks are scheduled, and no one at the White House or on Capitol Hill can say how or when the shutdown, already the longest in the nation’s history, will end.
Allies of McConnell were not optimistic Monday that bipartisan talks between rank-and-file senators were the key to breaking the impasse. McConnell’s position continues to be that Trump, Pelosi and Schumer must agree on a solution for it to succeed, they emphasized.
McConnell is not discouraging individual senators from brainstorming or strategizing, according to a senior Senate GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe his view, but his thinking on how to solve the problem has not changed.
“As long as their answer remains ‘no,’ there’s probably not a productive role for him to play,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and a close confidant of the Senate leader, speaking of the Democratic resistance to negotiating wall funding.
Holmes said that if Democrats came to the table with demands in exchange for wall funding, that might entice McConnell to engage more closely in the negotiations.
“If you’re a Democrat, there is a number of things you’d be interested in accomplishing, so throw it out there,” said Holmes.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a close ally of McConnell, emphasized that the group will need to find something Trump will accept.
“Until they come up with something the president will sign, it’s unfortunately a futile effort,” he said.
“I know there’ve been a lot of discussions — Senator Graham, and I hear Manchin and others. Sort of the usual suspects are involved, and that’s a good thing if they can help us break the logjam,” Cornyn added.
Asked whether McConnell should get more involved in the negotiations with Trump and congressional leaders, Cornyn said the majority leader is “right where he wants to be” and “right where he should be, saying that when they can get something the president will sign he will put it on the floor.”
For their part, Senate Democrats applied a new round of pressure on McConnell to act first and hold a Senate vote to reopen the government.
“Mitch McConnell has the keys,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in an interview.
But some in the White House appeared focused on courting rank-and-file Democrats.
Appearing on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said: “I’m a fan of maybe talking to some of the 31 Democratic House members who represent districts that Trump-Pence won in 2016. Some of them are making joyful noises about border security.”
But several of these lawmakers said Monday that they aren’t interested in negotiations until Trump reopens the government.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), who represents a district won narrowly by Trump, said Monday: “Once the government is reopened, she would be more than willing to work with the president and Republicans in Congress to improve border security and reform our immigration system.”