This is the state of President Trump’s Washington: It took Congress nearly 320 minutes to agree on whether to begin negotiations to avert a partial government shutdown.
On Friday evening, senators spent hours debating whether to keep talking. Ultimately, they agreed to proceed. It was the longest recorded vote in Senate history.
Afterward, lawmakers seemed to feel like they’d done enough for one day. Most congressional leaders left the Capitol on Friday evening around 7 p.m. Hours later, the shutdown happened.
Things didn’t get any better Saturday.
After minimal effort from both sides, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that the shutdown would last well into the week and shuttered the chamber for legislative business until Thursday evening.
With so little trust between Trump and Congress, lawmakers headed home for the holidays without any idea about when many federal agencies would be able to open again.
After a Saturday lunch with Trump and a group of House conservatives, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) declared that a deal was likely to be days away.
“Reality,” he said.
Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which funds the government, described Trump as “exuberant” over the shutdown. He said the president was receiving “mixed messages” from his guests over how to proceed.
Some House Republicans, including members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, urged Trump to dig in against the Democrats. Leave those agency workers twisting without paychecks, they said. Whatever it takes to get Democrats to give in to Trump’s demand for $5 billion to build a border wall.
Democrats, of course, offered a much different diagnosis.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) blamed Trump for the current atmosphere of mistrust. He accused the president of repeatedly making deals with lawmakers, only to back away later.
For evidence, he pointed to this past week.
On Wednesday, McConnell and Schumer agreed to pass a temporary funding bill that would keep every agency open a couple more months. It passed unanimously on a voice vote.
“All indications were the president would sign that bill,” Schumer said in a Senate floor speech. “But President Trump — beholden to the far, far right, unwilling to shoulder even the slightest critique from Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham — changed his mind.”
Thursday afternoon, after conservative talk-show hosts railed against the Senate plan, Trump summoned House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to the White House and declared that he would no longer support the Senate plan.
He wanted the fight over the Southwest border wall, even if it meant a partial shutdown at Christmas.
Ryan pushed a deeply conservative funding bill through the House, only to watch it die Friday during the marathon Senate vote. Every Democrat — and several Republicans — opposed that bill.
By Friday evening, Shelby said Congress has no intention of going through that again. It would not move a bill until Trump publicly backs whatever deal lawmakers reach.
“We would all have to have assurance, if we ever reached a tentative agreement, that the president would . . . agree to what we’ve agreed to, and sign it,” he said. “Or there would not be an agreement.”
That night, senators thought they might get there. As bipartisan talks progressed, rumors of a compromise — with a middle ground on border funding and quick passage to avert a shutdown — circulated.
In normal Washington, that measure would have been passed. Not now.
Instead, lawmakers quibbled about process.
“The movement is more on how we go forward to ensure we get a result.” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) explained. “There wasn’t a great deal of movement on substance, it’s more about process.”
Finally, the Senate agreed to a deal that wasn’t a deal at all — just a chance to allow negotiations to continue.
On Saturday, it seemed like more of the same.
“There’s a deal to be had, if we can just get people talking to each other,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said. Gardner and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) were spearheading negotiations between Pence and the Democrats.
By lunchtime Saturday, Gardner clearly wasn’t expecting a deal soon. He showed up in a weekend casual look forbidden on the Senate floor. Instead, he was just at the Senate chamber to deliver cookies to the hard-working staff in the Senate cloakroom.
By early Saturday afternoon, it was clear that not enough people were talking to each other, not enough trust had been built. An hour later, McConnell closed the chamber, admitting that a long shutdown lay ahead.
Last fall, McConnell and Ryan regularly boasted that this was the most successful Republican-led Congress ever. There was the tax cut, approved a year ago, along with the confirmation of two conservatives to the Supreme Court and approval of major appropriation bills that fund agencies.
The biggest bills, funding the Defense and Health and Human Services departments, passed ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, meaning 75 percent of agency budgets are funded for 2019.
That was the best Congress had done in 20 years on the spending front.
But now, all that goodwill has been washed away with a government shutdown that could last weeks, not just days.
“I think that there’s trust being built,” Gardner said, embracing optimism.
Shelby, 84, a 40-year veteran of Congress, took the more realistic approach.
“Hope? There’s always hope,” he said. “Is there probably a deal today? Probably not probable.”