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Senate Republicans all but surrender to Trump on wall despite shutdown’s toll

Members of Congress discussed ways to break the funding impasse on Jan. 20, the 30th day of a partial government shutdown. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

One month into a historic government shutdown, Republican senators are standing staunchly behind President Trump’s demand for money to build a border wall, even as the GOP bears the brunt of the blame for a standoff few in the party agitated for, according to interviews this past week with more than 40 Republican senators and aides.

Under pressure from conservatives to help Trump deliver on a signature campaign promise and unable to persuade him to avert the partial government shutdown, these lawmakers have all but surrendered to the president’s will. Their comments show how the cracks in the 53-member Republican majority that emerged at the outset of the shutdown have not spread beyond a handful of lawmakers. 

Asked about the pressure from constituents and some of the 800,000 affected federal workers to end the impasse, GOP senators insisted they are facing equal — if not more — insistence to stand behind Trump and his call for $5.7 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, especially from conservative voters.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to move ahead on Trump’s latest offer to Democrats — temporary protections for some immigrants in exchange for billions of dollars in wall money as well as legislation to reopen the government. Nearly all Republicans have indicated they back the plan.

Congressional Democrats have rejected the proposal and have refused to negotiate with the president until the government is reopened. The near-uniformity on both sides raises the prospect of an extended shutdown and highlights the new dynamic in the era of divided government. As Trump faces down a Democratic-led House eager to challenge him, the Republican-controlled Senate has effectively become an extension of the White House. 

“I’m not contemplating anything that the president hasn’t indicated he would sign,” said Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm for 2020. Asked about a compromise bill, Young repeated himself, word for word.

President Trump spoke from the White House Jan. 19 and outlined a new proposal for border security, immigration reform and ending the shutdown. (Video: The Washington Post)

Led by McConnell, most GOP senators argue there is little utility in contemplating solutions to the shutdown that don’t have Trump’s blessing. 

“As we all know, the president feels strongly about issues. And he’s a carnivore,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who recently flew on Air Force One with Trump. “And on this one I can tell you, he believes he’s right.”

On the prospects of a wall-free funding bill, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) put it this way: “The president won’t sign it. Why would we work on it?” 

“I’m ready to vote for anything that the president agrees to sign,” added Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the third-ranking Senate Republican. “And once we get that, I’m a ‘yes’ vote.” 

The posture is a stark turnaround from a month ago, when Senate Republicans voted unanimously to fund the federal government without satisfying Trump’s wall request. It also stands in contrast to the first two years of the Trump administration, when Republicans controlled all levers of government yet failed to deliver on the wall. Few in the GOP matched Trump’s enthusiasm for a wall that he repeatedly promised Mexico would finance.

Throughout the dozens of interviews with The Washington Post, only six Republican senators were willing to say they would support reopening the government without wall money and without the president’s approval being a precondition. Some Republicans, such as Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), have made it clear almost since the shutdown began that they would back spending legislation to end the impasse, even without border wall funding. 

“Just a few weeks ago, they had no qualms in saying, ‘yeah, let’s move [a stopgap funding measure] until the eighth of February’ with nothing. They didn’t ask for anything with that and they were good with that then,” Murkowski said of her Republican colleagues. “And now we’re not good with it?”

Asked if she believed Senate Republicans, writ large, were afraid to cross Trump, Murkowski responded: “I think some are, absolutely.” 

Others, such as Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), are advocating for a short-term spending measure to reopen the government to buy lawmakers time to consider Trump’s border request — a strategy the White House has dismissed. 

But those voices are by far the outliers. Scores of Senate Republicans — from swing states to conservative ones, from the highest levels of leadership to rank and file, from Trump acolytes to Trump critics — support the president’s position and have been unyielding, despite pressure from Democrats and the mounting consequences of the shutdown.

Numerous Republican senators also said they would support any compromise in wall funding below the $5.7 billion administration request, as long as — again — it had Trump’s seal of approval. 

“I’m not in favor of a resolution of this impasse that does not include a wall,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. 

“The president’s not gonna sign it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “Rather than waste time on votes to try to pressure the president, or pressure Pelosi, or make a political statement, I think the president and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer need to meet.” 

“Having gone this far,” mused Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), “I’m sticking with the president on this and willing to let his strategy play out.”

Yet in private, key Republicans are signaling more concern about the long-term repercussions of the shutdown and the atmosphere in Washington deteriorating after weeks of bitter brinkmanship and no substantive negotiations to reopen the government.

White House officials and GOP leaders would accept virtually any offer from Democrats to end the impasse, hoping they sell it to Trump as a “victory” and move forward, said one Republican with close ties to both the administration and congressional leaders. This person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said there is extreme consternation about how poorly the shutdown was playing out and how polling shows many Americans heaping blame on Trump.

There is growing concern in the GOP that the longer the shutdown drags on, the more the party will stand to suffer politically.

Fifty-six percent of voters said Trump and Republicans in Congress were responsible for the shutdown, according to a recent Quinnipiac University survey, while 36 percent said congressional Democrats were responsible. The findings were similar to an earlier Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed Americans were holding Trump and GOP lawmakers more culpable. 

Other polls that have separated congressional Republicans from Trump show GOP lawmakers bear far less blame than either the president or Democrats on the Hill. A CBS News-YouGov poll conducted Jan. 9 to 11 found just 3 percent of the general public blamed Republicans in Congress for the partial shutdown, compared to 47 percent for Trump and 30 percent for congressional Democrats.

The shutdown has also been a drag on Trump’s personal approval ratings — a decline that comes in a period of tumult at the White House, including numerous vacancies in the Cabinet, an antagonistic House eager to start its investigations into the administration, and uncertainty about the outcome of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential ties to the Trump campaign.

An NPR-Marist poll this past week not only showed a decline in Trump’s overall approval rating, but significant drops among core tenants of his political base — including suburban men, white evangelicals and registered Republicans. 

At the same time, the Post-ABC poll illustrated the pressure Republicans are under from their political base to stand firm in the fight. Support for the wall jumped 16 percentage points in the past year, the survey showed. 

While many Republican senators — particularly those on the ballot next year in a presidential cycle — sidestepped questions about potential repercussions, others candidly acknowledged they would probably face pain from their base if they chose not to align with Trump.

“If the president did not agree to a solution and Republicans tried to force a solution, then there’s a political cost to that,” Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said.

Republicans have also voiced broad frustration at Democrats, pointing out that previous presidents had secured funding to build barriers of some sort along the southern border, while the Trump administration has only been able to repair existing fencing. 

GOP senators are also increasingly peeved at Democratic tactics — such as Pelosi’s suggestion that Trump reschedule the Jan. 29 State of the Union address until the government reopens because of security concerns — and the speaker’s insistence that there will not be any money for a wall in any agreement that resolves the impasse.

 “What I don’t understand is how Nancy Pelosi can be such an inept negotiator as to not try to get something that her and her colleagues really, really want,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said.

Senate Republicans have largely decided to stay in lockstep with the president, even as the shutdown has affected their home states.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), like other agricultural state lawmakers, has been under pressure over the negative impact of the shutdown on farmers, who have been hit hard in Trump’s trade war. The administration extended a key deadline for farmers to apply for bailout funds meant to offset struggles from tariffs. But some have warned that the industry could face other setbacks if the shutdown continues.

Asked whether she would be open to supporting a bill without wall money, Ernst — a new member of Senate leadership who is on the ballot next year — responded: “I would want to know that the president, um, would be supportive of it.” 

What about a compromise bill? 

“Only if the president would sign it,” Ernst answered. 

In a 20-minute interview, Murkowski described in detail the pain the partial shutdown was inflicting on Alaska. The state, with its federally managed lands, fisheries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the largest Coast Guard base in the nation at Kodiak, has more federal workers per capita affected by the shutdown than any other. 

“I understand that maybe my urgency on this is because I come from a state that is so heavily impacted right now. And it’s frustrating to me that other colleagues are not sharing this sense of urgency,” Murkowski said.  

But her home-state colleague, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), stressed that he is firmly behind the president’s wall requests, calling it “eminently reasonable” and emphasizing that Democratic senators had entertained upward of $25 billion in wall money as recently as last February.

Border-state Republicans are particularly firm behind Trump, who visited McAllen, Tex., earlier this month as he ramped up his public relations effort for the wall.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a McConnell confidant up for reelection next year, responded “Uh, no,” when asked whether he would entertain voting for a bill that did not include wall funding.

“The president won’t sign it,” Cornyn pointed out. 

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.