WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s comments Thursday that he could support a “reasonable” agreement to reopen the federal government followed a frenzied day on Capitol Hill in which a bipartisan group of senators took over the Senate floor and called for renewed talks to end the government shutdown.
“I see a glimmer of hope here,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican. “Where I am really optimistic is the fact that 16 senators are on the floor, equally divided between the two parties and willing to compromise.”
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” she stressed. “It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Let us compromise to reopen government, address border security and get on with the business of this country.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the budget impasse that triggered the shutdown could be resolved if lawmakers are given more time to negotiate “in good faith.”
The push for action by Collins, Coons and others in the bipartisan group came after the failure of two competing bills to end the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
But the debate over the bills and other developments on Capitol Hill underscored the frustration building among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the shutdown, now in its 34th day.
Trump is demanding $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which was a signature promise of his presidential campaign. Democrats are refusing to give him the money, arguing that a border wall is costly, ineffective and – in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – an “immorality.”
With the standoff stretching for more than a month, the shutdown’s toll is being felt across the country. Trash has piled up in national parks, federal landmarks and museums have been forced to close and some airports have shuttered checkpoints because of fewer Transportation Security Administration officers to screen passengers.
On Friday, some 800,000 federal employees who have been on unpaid leave or working without pay will miss their second paycheck since the shutdown began.
In Washington, members of Congress are feeling the heat.
“This last weekend and week, I heard loud and clear from the people of Utah that they want our government to open again,” said Utah Senate Mitt Romney, the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2012. “They want this shutdown to be over.”
On Friday, House Democrats are expected to roll out their latest offer to the Trump administration, which will include $5 billion in border security if he agrees to reopen the government. The proposal does not include money for any “new structures” along the border, but it marks the first time Democratic leaders will broadly lay out what they might accept in a compromise.
The catalyst that triggered the sudden burst of talks on Thursday was the failure of a pair of Senate bills – one pushed by Republicans, the other by Democrats.
The GOP proposal would have provided $5.7 billion in border wall funding that Trump is demanding and included other immigration other concessions that the president offered to Democrats over the weekend.
Senators voted 50 to 47 to limit debate on a GOP bill, effectively killing it since it fell short of the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.
Senators then turned to the Democratic proposal, which was a short-term measure to reopen the government through Feb. 8. That bill, too, died on a 52 to 44 vote – eight votes shy of the 60 that were needed.
Yet in a sign of their impatience with the standoff, six Republicans – Collins, Romney, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Johnny Isakson of Georgia – all broke ranks with GOP leadership and supported the Democrats’ proposal.
Immediately after the votes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer huddled in McConnell’s office to try to figure out a way forward as the bipartisan group of senators took to the floor to push for a bill to open the government through Feb. 15.
“The way forward is clear to me,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican and Trump ally who argued a three-week funding bill would give lawmakers more time to negotiate.
Graham suggested the short-term measure include “a down payment on wall/barrier funding and priorities of Democrats for disaster relief, showing good faith from both sides.”
At the White House, Trump said he is open to such a measure. But it was not clear how large a “down payment” he would demand.
“It depends on what the agreement is,” Trump said.
Regardless, senators in both parties found reason for encouragement despite the confusion and frenzy of the day.
“We don’t know yet is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters after the Senate vote.
As he spoke, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee’s top Democrat on the Ap, came up and put his arm around his GOP colleague.
“I believe if we were designated… by our respective caucuses to work this out, I bet we could do it by 6 o’clock. Do you disagree?” Shelby told reporters just before 4 p.m.
Leahy agreed. The pair already had successfully negotiated funding for three-fourths of the federal government, which is operating as usual and isn’t impacted by the government shutdown. Just a quarter of the government is without funding and remains closed.
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