Moderate senators left a bipartisan meeting Sunday optimistic they’re making headway on a compromise to reopen the government after a two-day standoff.
Senators took their proposal to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after the 90-minute meeting. The plan would reopen the government through Feb. 8 and have McConnell commit on the Senate floor to holding an immigration vote before that date.
McConnell would “be more than happy to publicly state he’ll be willing to move to immigration at a very near time,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said after Republican senators pitched the Senate leader on the idea.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) also struck an upbeat note after the meeting with McConnell. The senator said a deal within reach would involve starting an immigration debate in the chamber by Feb. 8, even if a broader deal were not reached by then.
The best-case scenario, Flake added, “is to pass the bill with a good Senate majority, have a process up here, and have the president support it if we can get 60 or 70 votes. I believe he will and if he does, that’ll move the House.”
Even if McConnell publicly commits to that process, it’s unclear how far it would go in securing Democratic votes. Some Democrats said they need to know the House would take action on an immigration bill, too.
“We have to have in our own mind some way to ensure that the House feels a need to bring up the issue as well,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
McConnell and Schumer met at 5 p.m. to discuss the proposal and possible next steps.
Senators from both sides stressed that the next several hours are critical, predicting that if a deal isn’t reached today, both parties could remain entrenched — and the government shuttered — for days to come.
The centrists are eager to end the brinkmanship that has erupted at the one-year mark of Donald Trump’s presidency. Democrats insist that any funding legislation extend Obama-era protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, while Republicans say they won’t negotiate around immigration until the government reopens.
The group of roughly 20 moderates includes Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Flake, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Durbin, Mark Warner (D-Va.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
Some liberals are still wary. They fear that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could repeat the exercise of 2013, when the Senate passed an immigration bill and the House didn’t take it up. That’s why, without an ironclad commitment from Ryan, they are skeptical.
“It depends on whether it’s part of a must-pass bill. That is my strong preference. The goal is to have the [DREAM] Act passed,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in an interview. “I have no confidence, zero, in Paul Ryan bringing that bill to the floor.”
Republican leaders are also skeptical. They believe committing to an immigration vote would just throw Democrats a lifeline and prefer to negotiate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program only after the government reopens.
“Does that mean if we have an agreement by [Feb.] 15 that that’s not good enough?” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the plan to hold an immigration vote by Feb. 8. “I just think people are nervous because they shut down the government and are looking for face-saving.”
Still, McConnell listened to the presentation by a group of GOP senators to allow such a vote by Feb. 8.
So far, House Republican leaders have rejected the idea of committing to holding an immigration vote on the House floor and are refusing to negotiate on anything beyond a three-week continuing resolution. Ryan said Sunday the House will accept a short-term bill through Feb. 8 but will commit only to an immigration bill “that the president supports to fix this problem.”
“We’re basically waiting to see whether the Senate will vote for this or not,” Ryan said of a three-week funding bill on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Without a bipartisan agreement otherwise, the Senate is scheduled to vote at 1 a.m. Monday on a bill to reopen the government through Feb. 8. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, one of five red-state Democrats to support a funding bill on Friday, warned that forcing a vote Sunday night on a three-week version — without any further breakthroughs on immigration — would make a deal even harder to reach.
“What we are trying to avoid is a vote that fails tonight,” she said.
Lawmakers hope to reach a deal before Monday, when federal employees would normally return to work, to lessen the impact of the shutdown.
But as the shutdown continues, bipartisan immigration conversations between the No. 2 leaders in the House and Senate have stalled. Cornyn and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have refused to meet with their Democratic counterparts — Durbin and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — since the shutdown began.
And much of the partisan rancor and finger-pointing that defined the first 24 hours of the impasse continued.
Democrats blasted Trump for walking away from an immigration deal with Schumer on Friday that they say could have prevented the shutdown.
“How can you negotiate with the president under those circumstances where he agrees face-to-face to move forward with a certain path and then within two hours calls back and pulls the plug?” Durbin said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Schumer offered Trump support for the border wall in exchange for a deal to protect the nearly 700,000 so-called Dreamers facing deportation. But since then, Republicans and Democrats have publicly sparred over whether Schumer was offering full funding for the wall or not.
Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of taking “hostages” in order to strong-arm the GOP into an immigration deal that has eluded Congress for years.
“This is the Democrats trying to hold our military hostage for an issue that has been with us for decades,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said on ABC. “I think we need to resolve it — the president wants to resolve it — but you don’t do that in the middle of a shutdown.”
But even Republicans seemed uncomfortable defending a Trump campaign ad saying Democratic leaders would be “complicit” in murders committed by undocumented immigrants during the shutdown. Republican leaders know they will need Democratic cooperation to break the shutdown logjam.
“I don’t know if that’s necessarily productive,” Ryan said of the Trump ad.
Democrats have criticized what they say is Trump’s absence from the negotiations, particularly as it remains unclear what kind of immigration deal the president would sign. Republicans say they can only agree to a deal backed by the White House. Administration aides rebutted that portrayal of the president’s involvement, saying he and his top staffers had spoken Sunday with key members of Congress about shutdown negotiations and preparations.
“I think he should, instead of throwing tweets from the White House, pull together the four leaders of the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis today and negotiate,” Coons said on “Fox News Sunday.”
So far, Trump has not called for a meeting with the “Big Four” congressional leaders — McConnell, Schumer, Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and Republicans on the Sunday news shows gave no indication he would do so. But White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Trump has been in touch with GOP leaders throughout the weekend.
“The president has been involved,” Short said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Yesterday he was speaking to Leader McConnell, Leader Ryan. He also spoke to Kevin McCarthy.”
John Bresnahan and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.
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