Republicans Bend, but Don’t Break, on the Shutdown
Despite defections from key GOP senators, the upper chamber rejected two proposals to reopen the government, injecting a new sense of desperation into stagnant negotiations.
Updated on January 24 at 4:51 p.m. ET
The shutdown will go on.
Competing proposals to reopen the federal government each garnered majority support in the Senate on Thursday afternoon, but both failed to secure the necessary 60 votes to break an impasse that has dragged on for more than a month and cut off pay for 800,000 public employees.
The votes were technically procedural in nature, to end debate and move to final passage on both measures. But their twin defeat sent the same sobering message: More than a month of shuttered federal agencies and a mounting financial toll on well over 1 million employees and contractors have not been enough to forge consensus or a compromise in the Republican-led Senate. Bills passed by the Democratic majority in the House to reopen the government have gone nowhere. President Donald Trump has not relented in his demand for money for a border wall, and Republicans, frustrated though they are by the president and by alarming poll numbers, have stood by him.
The failure seemed to inject a new sense of desperation into what has been a stagnant situation. Soon after the votes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in his office, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters that he had spoken with Trump about a three-week spending bill to temporarily end the shutdown. Schumer, however, was tight-lipped: “We’re talking,” the Democrat, grinning ear to ear, repeated seven times to inquiring reporters as he left McConnell’s office.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, acknowledged the fresh talks but added a warning: “As was made clear to Senator Lindsey Graham, the three-week [continuing resolution] would only work if there is a large down payment on the wall,” she said in a statement. CNN reported Thursday evening that the White House has prepared a draft proclamation for Trump to sign declaring a national emergency at the border and had identified $7 billion in funding it would shift to construct a wall under that decree. The president hasn’t ruled out such a move—which would almost certainly be challenged by Democrats in the courts—but he has said he did not want to go that route.
In Thursday’s votes, Democrats blocked Trump’s proposal to trade protections for some undocumented immigrants for the $5.7 billion he has demanded in funding for the border wall, while Republicans largely held the line against a Democratic bid for a two-week break in the shutdown to buy time for more negotiations. There were notable cracks in the GOP position: Six Republicans broke with the party to back the Democratic proposal that would have reopened the government, in addition to supporting the president’s failed plan.
The votes Thursday were the first the Senate has taken to reopen the government since the 34-day shutdown began on December 22. Yet the political dynamic has barely budged. The same GOP lawmakers who have been saying they would consider legislation to reopen the government without funding for the border wall—Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—voted for both measures on Thursday. They were joined by Republican Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, as well as by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the centrist Democrat who was the only member of his party to back both Trump’s plan and the short-term alternative. The GOP defections were short of the 13 needed for the bill to clear a filibuster, but they ensured that the Democratic proposal secured more support in the Republican-controlled chamber than Trump’s. Two conservative Republicans, Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, voted against both amendments.
“I voted twice today to open the government because it should never have been shut down,” Alexander said in a statement afterward. “It is always wrong for either side to use shutting down the government as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations—it should be as off-limits as chemical weapons are to warfare.”
The outcome on Thursday was expected, although enough Republicans kept quiet about their plans for the Democratic proposal to lend the afternoon a bit of drama. The House left town for the weekend earlier in the day, as the chamber’s Democrats displayed little confidence that they would be needed to send a bill to Trump’s desk.
Tensions were high, however, in the run-up to the votes as it became clear the stalemate would continue. The normally even-keeled Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado lit into Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in a floor speech before the vote, recalling the conservative’s leading role in the last lengthy government shutdown, in 2013. “These crocodile tears that the senator from Texas is crying for first responders are too hard for me to take,” he said, referring to Cruz’s lamentation that Democrats objected to a bill that would pay the Coast Guard without ending the shutdown. “They’re too hard for me to take, because when the senator from Texas shut this government down in 2013, my state was flooded. It was under water! People were killed!”
“This,” he continued, “is a joke!”
Minutes before the vote, around two dozen House Democrats marched in silence across the Capitol and onto the Senate floor to make clear their frustration with McConnell’s handling of the shutdown. The group included both freshmen and more senior members, like Representatives John Lewis of Georgia and Barbara Lee of California, and Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.
The glass-half-full view of the Senate’s failed votes is that they could demonstrate to both parties that neither side’s current proposal is viable and that a fresh round of negotiations is needed. To that end, Pelosi acknowledged Thursday that Democrats are preparing a proposal that boosts spending on border security—reportedly by as much as the president’s requested $5.7 billion—but does not allocate funds for a wall. The plan would bolster technology along the border and beef up security at ports of entry, among other measures.
The speaker denied that the plan is “a counteroffer,” sticking to her insistence that Democrats won’t negotiate on border security until Trump agrees to reopen the government. Most of the money would be included in legislation that would fund the Department of Homeland Security for the remainder of 2019. The annual DHS appropriations bill was the only spending plan not agreed to in talks between Democrats and Republicans before the shutdown, and previous efforts to break the logjam had merely extended current funding levels for the department. So the Democratic proposal represents something of a shift, although it’s unlikely to be enough to win Trump or most Republicans over.
“If there’s no money for border barriers, that’s a nonstarter,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a close ally of McConnell.
Immediately after the vote, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who voted with Trump and against the Democratic plan, called for “a third way” that sounded similar to the emerging Democratic proposal: “It would reopen government in the short term with the commitment to a border-security plan that can be enacted in the next few weeks,” he said in a statement, without providing details of his idea.
Exactly what it would take to end the deadlock—aside from a cave by either Trump or the Democrats—was unclear on Thursday as the Senate rejected first one proposal, and then the other. The only certainty was that the longest shutdown in U.S. history would continue at least one more day, and likely longer.