Where that road will lead is an open question. Still, for the first time this year, the Senate is taking concrete steps to try to resolve the partial shutdown — offering a glimmer of hope for a deal to reopen shuttered agencies.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed to hold initial votes on two starkly contrasting ideas that some lawmakers hope will mark a small but important step toward a solution.
The votes will test the abilities of McConnell and Schumer to unify their sides, and likely, to negotiate with each other afterward. In other dramatic fiscal showdowns over the past decade, the Senate has almost always been the chamber that found the bipartisan solution as the House hit roadblocks, from the Wall Street bailout of 2008 to reopening of government after the 2013 shutdown. But those were crises that predated President Trump’s mercurial presidency.
In effect, the defeat of both measures would demonstrate in the most concrete manner yet that what both sides have been pushing for is not possible in the Senate, and that some new compromise must be forged to pass the chamber.
Such a scenario might entice Trump to offer more concessions to Democrats while serving as a counter to Democrats’ insistence that there is overwhelming support for their plan, according to a Senate Republican leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
“Sometimes failure is a prelude to people looking at each other and saying, well, now we know what will fail, let’s try to devise something that will succeed,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in an interview.
First, senators will vote on Trump’s latest offer to end the impasse — $5.7 billion to build a wall on the border with Mexico in exchange for temporary protections for some immigrants.
To advance, the bill will need 60 votes under Senate rules. Republicans hold 53 seats and Democrats are largely united against Trump’s plan and his wall, giving it little chance of succeeding.
Next, the Senate will vote on the Democratic plan — open up the government without wall funding through Feb. 8, offering relief to federal workers and buying time to continue the negotiations on border security. Most Republicans oppose this idea, making 60 votes a very difficult target.
Both McConnell and Schumer have largely united rank-and-file senators in their respective parties behind their shutdown strategies. Thursday’s votes, which were announced after McConnell and Schumer met privately Tuesday, will show whether that has changed or not.
After spearheading a stopgap bill to avert a shutdown last year only to be overruled by Trump, McConnell has opted to side staunchly with the president, bringing most Republican senators with him.
Schumer, in concert with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has stood firm against border wall funding and demanded that Republicans immediately open the government. The other 46 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus are predominantly with him.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is up for reelection and has faced pressure from Democrats to end the shutdown, said he plans to vote for Trump’s bill but against the Democratic proposal.
“I voted yes on that before, back in December, and it didn’t turn out well — we know the president’s against it,” Tillis said in an interview, speaking of the stopgap plan the Democrats are advocating.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate also facing reelection, said she plans to vote to advance both bills. “The shutdown is so extraordinarily unfair,” Collins said.
But other Republicans were more circumspect about how they would vote on the Democratic plan.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another centrist, called both proposals “imperfect,” but said she was leaning toward voting to proceed on both bills and would definitely vote to move forward with Trump’s plan.
“Conventional wisdom out there is that neither one of them is going to proceed, so they will be viewed more as messaging amendments,” Murkowski said. “I don’t know, I think the folks that I work for back in Alaska are more than tired of messaging. They want some resolution to this.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said he supported Trump’s bill. Asked about the Democratic plan as he prepared to depart on a subway in the Capitol, aides interjected to say, “thank you.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a centrist who has broken ranks with his party in the past, was undecided on the Republican bill Wednesday afternoon, according to his spokesman, Jonathan Kott.
Asked if there is still room for progress moving forward if both Thursday votes fail, Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, replied, “Yes.”
In a speech on the Senate floor, Schumer urged Republicans to vote for the plan he has embraced.
“To say: Well, one is a Democratic amendment, one’s a Republican amendment doesn’t get the magnitude of this, the difference,” he said. “Because one is holding 800,000 workers hostage, millions of Americans hostage, unless the amendment authors get their way. The second says: We’re not demanding anything. Just open up the government and then let’s discuss it.”
McConnell defended the Republican plan. “The president has produced a fair compromise that pairs full-year government funding with immigration policy priorities from both sides. Enough political spite,” he said in his floor speech.
Exactly where the Senate would go if the votes end in failure on Thursday was unclear. Neither McConnell’s office nor Schumer’s would speculate on next steps.
Until Trump’s latest proposal, McConnell had taken a step back from the shutdown talks, placing the burden on Schumer, Pelosi and Trump to strike a deal.
But his decision to reengage has opened the door to new possibilities. If he remains involved, McConnell, who helped forged bipartisan deals during Barack Obama’s presidency, has the potential to alter the dynamic of the negotiations.
Yet the standoff could still be difficult to resolve. Schumer has held his caucus together in opposition to wall funding, and polls show Trump and congressional Republicans getting more blame from the public than congressional Democrats. Unless that changes, there will be little political incentive for the Democratic leader to budge.
A Democratic-controlled House increasingly at odds with Trump has made things even thornier — and put even more pressure on the Senate to help come up with a solution.
On the sidelines of Senate business, bipartisan talks have continued, in hopes of forging a deal at the rank-and-file level. So far, those discussions have produced no breakthroughs.
“We are trying to figure out how we get beyond tomorrow,” said Murkowski, exiting a small meeting of senators Wednesday.