A bipartisan group of senators is trying to set up a gang to end the government shutdown. But Senate leaders might as well be an anti-gang task force.
About a dozen Democratic and Republican senators are beginning member-to-member and staff level conversations on how to break the deadlock between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders, who are not even talking any more about how to reopen the government. But few senators believe the group has a real shot at success, given that it’s chief goal is at odds with Trump’s current hard-line stance. And party leaders aren’t offering much encouragement.
The new gang’s hope is that the president can be convinced to open the government up and take up an immigration package that would enhance border security and offer protections for young immigrants and people under Temporary Protected Status. Trump has repeatedly rejected the idea of reopening the government before getting some $5 billion for his border wall, and senators say there’s no reason to believe he will change his tune now that centrists are talking across party lines.
“The gang concept almost never works. And when it does, the people who were part of the gang are almost always sorry they were part of the gang,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 GOP leader.
Blunt added that he can see no scenario where Republicans vote for a bill funding the government that Trump doesn’t support. And that’s the only thing that Democratic leaders are willing to take right now before they’ll even start talking about border security and immigration reform.
“If we can get Mitch to open up the government, that’s great. But they’re going to need 20 to 25 of their folks saying that before Mitch McConnell does,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Democratic leader.
It’s not that party leaders are panning the idea of talking, but they just don’t see how it gets the government any closer to being open.
The key players have backed into their respective corners in the Capitol and White House: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that he won’t put anything on the floor that doesn’t get a presidential signature, and the president has been adamant he wants wall funding that Democrats won’t support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are refusing to give the president more than $1.3 billion in fencing, the same amount as current spending levels.
Given that reality, individual senators, though powerful in their own right, can’t actually break the logjam.
“Count me as skeptical that a new gang is going to solve this problem. The most straightforward way to solve this problem is to allow us to vote on any number of funding bills that would garner 60, 70, 80 votes,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who serves on the Democratic whip team.
“I credit our guys with reaching out and trying to create a solution that might break the impasse. But in the end the president, his team have to be involved too,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t know where it’s headed. But at least there’s some discussions going on, which is a good thing.”
Senators are getting antsy and feel compelled to do something, anything, to try and get out of the seemingly endless shutdown, according to people familiar with the group’s dynamics. Trump rejected a GOP-only plan last week that would reopen the government and put Trump’s border wall request into consideration by the congressional committees.
Among those meeting in the latest round of talks are moderates like Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and dealmakers like Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is close to Trump. Democrats say even Republican senators seem to understand why Democrats want the government opened before negotiating on the border barrier.
“Government should open up,” Manchin said, summing up the feeling in the room. But he said he hasn’t heard anything suggesting that Trump “is going to back off.”
Still, the senators who are meeting believe that if Democrats sign on, maybe it will show the president that the Democratic Party is actually willing to talk, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But most senators and aides are downbeat about any breakthrough other than creating an appearance of bipartisan movement that might encourage the president to rethink his opposition to a short-term funding bill to jumpstart immigration talks.
Even people in the group are essentially taking the position that until Trump bends and reopens the government without new immediate wall funding, it’s going to be impossible to make progress.We can’t get to a solution until we get the government open. And I think there’s a recognition of that from” Republicans, said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who attended the meeting in Manchin’s Capitol office on Monday. He said he had “no idea” if the president will ever sign off on that idea: “There’s not going to be any real effort on substance until you get the government open.”