Twenty-four days into the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and with the White House and House Democrats no closer to a deal, pressure is ramping up on Senate Republicans to craft an exit plan that will get federal employees back to work and pull their party out of a deepening political quagmire.
In a sign that Republicans are increasingly concerned that the standoff over President Trump’s long-promised border wall is hurting their party politically, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) suggested temporarily reopening the government while continuing negotiations. If talks don’t bear fruit, Graham said Sunday, the president could consider following through on his threat to bypass Congress and build the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency.
“I would urge him to open up the government for a short period of time, like three weeks, before he pulls the plug,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” “See if we can get a deal. If we can’t at the end of three weeks, all bets are off. See if he can do it by himself through the emergency powers.”
The maneuvering by a key Trump ally highlights the difficult balancing act Senate Republicans will probably face over the next two years, trapped between a mercurial GOP president and an emboldened new House Democratic majority.
Tensions have flared inside the West Wing as negotiations have stalled. On Friday, Trump complained and used expletives about Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney in front of congressional leaders, after Mulvaney urged compromise on the administration’s demand for $5.7 billion in wall funding, said two Trump advisers familiar with the exchange who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Trump was dismayed by Mulvaney’s willingness to compromise and sharply criticized him for taking a different approach than the president at the time, one of the advisers said, calling it a scene “right out of ‘The Godfather.’ ”
The advisers added that the two remain on good terms, but acknowledged that they are still getting to know each other’s styles as Mulvaney settles into his new post. The scene was first reported by Axios.
Trump and the Democrats remained far apart Sunday. Tweeting from the White House as the capital was blanketed by snow for the first time this year, the president continued to point a finger at Democrats, who he said were “everywhere but Washington as people await their pay.”
At the same time, Democrats ramped up calls for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up House-passed legislation to fund the government, regardless of whether the president agrees. McConnell, whose office insists it’s up to Democrats to make a deal, has taken a low public profile as the stalemate drags on, seemingly wary of being burned once again by Trump after the president did an abrupt about-face last month and opposed a temporary funding bill that had cleared the Senate.
So far, three Republican senators — Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Susan Collins (Maine), both running for reelection in states Trump lost in 2016, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — have called for an immediate end to the partial shutdown even without the more than $5 billion Trump has demanded for the wall. The impasse left about 800,000 federal workers without a paycheck Friday, as lawmakers were back in their states and congressional districts.
If other senators begin feeling the heat from constituents, they could force McConnell’s hand, Republican strategist Doug Heye said. “If he has, like, three more Republican senators — whoever they may be — calling for something to be done, then that changes the calculus,” he said. “But until that happens, there is no political motivation for McConnell.”
Twenty-two Senate Republicans, including McConnell, are up for reelection in 2020, compared with only 12 Senate Democrats. But the majority of the Republican-held seats are in solid red states, where the greatest fear for GOP incumbents is a primary challenge from the right. Only a handful of Republicans are in potentially competitive races, including Collins, Gardner, Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and David Perdue (Ga.).
Public opinion could also increase the pressure. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday said that more Americans blame Trump and Republicans in Congress for the shutdown than congressional Democrats. Fifty-three percent of respondents blame the president and Republicans, while 29 percent blame Democrats. Thirteen percent blame both equally. More Americans remain opposed to the idea of a border wall than support it, the poll found, although the margin has narrowed over the past year.
Senate Democrats are seizing the opportunity to pressure their Republican colleagues. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said that moderate Republicans who sought to broker a deal last week should make an appeal to McConnell.
“It’s time for those centrists to speak up in their own Republican Senate caucus and tell Mitch McConnell, ‘The party’s over. We want this to end, there’s no excuse for the shutdown,’ ” Durbin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He added that “once the president realizes he’s lost the Senate Republicans, we can roll up our sleeves, open the government and get down to business.”
Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), raised the prospect of the Senate banding together to bypass the president and force the funding bills through. Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by more than 40 points, said in a statement Sunday that given Trump’s suggestion late last week that he does not immediately plan to issue an emergency declaration, “it’s time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring up the House-passed appropriations bills that would finally reopen government.”
“As an equal branch of government we have the authority to override the President’s veto, if that’s what he chooses to do,” Manchin said.
Yet McConnell’s office reiterated that it is up to Democrats to reach an agreement with the president. In a statement, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart also noted that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has previously stipulated that any funding bill must have the support of both parties’ leaders as well as the president before it is brought up for a vote in the chamber.
“What isn’t happening, though, is Democrats demanding that their leadership get back in the room and negotiate,” Stewart said. “Once Democrats can reach an agreement with the president, the Senate can act on that.”
One of the few constants in the shutdown negotiations has been the president’s shifting positions, and Sunday was no exception.
In a tweet, the president complained that Democrats are “saying that DACA is not worth it,” referring to protections for “dreamers” who were brought to the country illegally as children.
But last week, Trump himself shot down a deal floated by Senate Republicans that would have included those protections, and he has repeatedly said that he plans to wait until the Supreme Court rules on the matter before seeking to negotiate with Democrats on it.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) on Sunday took aim at the president’s vacillations, which he said made him “feel like I signed up for the ‘Trump of the Day Club.’ ”
“I don’t know what position we’re going to get on a negotiation from Day One to Day Two,” Coons said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Coons also suggested that’s why McConnell has not taken a more active role in negotiations. While McConnell has been part of the process, he was not present outside the White House last week after talks between Trump and congressional leaders collapsed. “Why is Mitch McConnell completely absent from these negotiations?” Coons asked. “It’s because he doesn’t really know what the president will accept.”
As both sides jousted, the impact of the shutdown continued to reverberate across the federal government.
The Transportation Security Administration, for instance, said there was a significant increase in the number of airport checkpoint personnel not reporting for duty. The rate of unscheduled absences Saturday jumped by 37.5 percent compared with the day before, with 7.7 percent of the 51,000 workforce not reporting for duty. On Jan. 14 of last year, when there wasn’t a shutdown, there was a 3.2 percent absentee rate.
On Sunday, the TSA closed its checkpoint in Terminal B of Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston because of staffing issues associated with the shutdown, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, Miami International Airport officials said they will reopen a terminal Monday that was closed for parts of the weekend because of a staffing shortage caused by the shutdown, the AP reported.
Although the TSA said it was consolidating efforts where necessary, a spokesman pointed out that virtually all passengers who flew Saturday cleared through checkpoints in less than the TSA’s 30-minute standard. “Security standards remain uncompromised at our nation’s airports,” said spokesman Jim Gregory. But the people who man TSA checkpoints are among the lowest-paid federal employees, and their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, has voiced concern that its members may not be able to report to work if their pay stops.
In an effort to forestall that, TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske approved pay for checkpoint workers who reported on Saturday, Dec. 22, the day after the shutdown began, and gave them a $500 Christmas bonus, money they should receive this week.
Ashley Halsey III and Robert Costa contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly compared the rates of unscheduled TSA absences. The rate Saturday jumped 37.5 percent compared with the day before.