Senate Democrats voted down a Middle East policy bill on Tuesday evening in protest over the government shutdown, and may soon vote again to block Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s agenda if the funding lapse persists.
The rejection of the legislation on a vote of 56-44 on Tuesday could be the first of several attempts to stymie McConnell. It comes even though some Democratic senators are likely to support the underlying policies of sanctioning Syria and striking back at the global campaign aimed at boycotting Israel. Democratic leaders privately discussed how they will handle future votes on the floor during the shutdown, and Democrats are sensitive to being seen as obstructionist during the impasse.
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But party leaders want to keep the focus strictly on the government shutdown and McConnell’s resistance to bringing the House Democrats’ government funding bills up for a vote. McConnell has stated repeatedly he will bring up only funding bills the president says he’s willing to sign, and the House bills do not meet that standard.
“It is preposterous that we are going to treat this week like some kind of mellow catch-up week where we do miscellaneous items that haven’t been able to get floor time,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who voted against advancing the bill. “The first thing we should do is reopen the government. I’m voting no tonight to make that point.”
“We think the first order of business should be opening the government,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). McConnell’s “position that he’s going to wait for a message from the president? I hope his caucus reminds him one of the branches of government has its own responsibility.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who supported moving forward on the Middle East bill, said he did not get the impression during a Democratic leadership meeting that this was a long-term strategy.
“It was brought up but I don’t think anybody’s in that mode of ‘block everything,’” Manchin said.
Just four Democrats supported it after D.C.-area lawmakers led an effort to defeat it. Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland helped spark the filibuster move over the weekend.
McConnell lambasted the growing consensus among Senate Democrats to reject bills unrelated to government funding. He said he expect a “big bipartisan vote, not some partisan showdown” on the Middle East bill and slammed Democrats for not compromising with Trump on the border wall.
“Democratic intransigence has made sure a quarter of the federal government has been shut down for more than two weeks,” McConnell said in a floor speech. “Two weeks. Now they’re threatening to shut the Senate down too.”
But Democrats want McConnell to share blame for the shutdown that Trump has embraced, so they are willing to stop unrelated legislation that otherwise might pass to ding the majority leader. Shortly after the bill failed, McConnell moved to bring it up again, suggesting he will make Democrats vote it down multiple times if the shutdown continues.
Democrats are undecided on whether they will vote against moving forward on all legislation until the government reopens.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) would have voted for the foreign policy bill if the government were open but helped lead the charge on the Democratic filibuster Tuesday. But he said the party is going to advocate bills meant to aid federal workers affected by the shutdown, meaning Democrats won’t take a stance that they will simply stop everything moving through the Senate.
“I don’t want to prejudge what I’m committed to doing, and I’ve told this to the leader and I’ve told this to a lot of our members: Every day we’re going to be raising how serious this is and we have to get government open,” he said.
Schatz said he did not want to make any declarations about whether Democrats would vote against moving forward on debate for all bills until the government shutdown ends. “We still want to get to yes at some point,” he said, adding that “if they put carbon tax on the floor, I’ll vote for cloture.”
During the October 2013 shutdown over Obamacare, which lasted 16 days, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed five bills that were not related to reopening the government and confirmed 28 executive and judicial nominees. But this time around, the new Congress has passed no bills since the shutdown began.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged his Democratic colleagues to reconsider voting down his bill on Tuesday.
“The government shutdown is not good for anybody … don’t know why we would shut down the Senate too given the issues that we face,” he said.