A dismal mood has descended on Capitol Hill as the shutdown concludes its 27th day.
The House speaker and the president are at war. A bipartisan Senate push to reopen the government failed for a second consecutive week. And no shutdown talks are even planned between party leaders.
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“I feel like I’m going to strangle you,” quipped one senator who’s tried in vain to find a breakthrough when a reporter asked about their state of mind.
That lawmaker was joking, probably, but the vibes in the Capitol are funereal at best. And with most members headed home for a long weekend, the partial shutdown is essentially guaranteed to enter into its second month. It’s an unheard-of impasse even in a capital that’s seen debt crises, blunt budget cuts and scores of unprecedented political conflicts over the past decade.
But this one feels different, a shutdown in which the dynamics are frozen. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) don’t want money for a border wall, and President Donald Trump wants $5.7 billion. Rank-and-file lawmakers can make noise and try to create momentum, but Trump has dismissed everything they’ve come up with — leading some members to wonder what they’re even doing.
“It’s very frustrating for me because my whole instinct is: Let’s find a way to get this solved. But so far anyway, his idea of negotiating is to say, ‘Here’s what I want, I’ll give you nothing,’” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who tried to forge an immigration deal a year ago. “I could sit down with Mike Pence for an afternoon and we might come to some agreement. And then [Trump would] blow it up.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has seemingly tried everything to open up the government. She’s complained publicly about her party’s strategy. She’s signed on to a bipartisan letter urging Trump to end the shutdown in exchange for a three-week immigration debate, which was promptly rejected by the White House, according to sources familiar with the talks. She’s even endorsed moving forward with no wall money.
On Thursday, her plans to travel to Europe for a conference on the Arctic had been canceled. And the Energy chairman was unsure whether she’d even be able to hold hearings next week with so many of her members out of town.
“Glum. Glum. I’m not a glum person. I’m not somebody who gets down. But I’ve been discouraged,” Murkowski said of her state of mind. “People I work for back home in Alaska are asking me to ‘fix it.’ And it’s hard for one person to fix anything around here. Unless you’re the president. Or the speaker. Or the majority leader.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) summed up his feelings in more dire terms: “We are in this horrible purgatory between heaven and hell.” He said “fatalism” had set in: “That there is no way out unless either he or we relent entirely.”
“Democrats are more than willing to try to give him a face-saving way to step down. He doesn’t seem to want to even consider it,” he said.
Some Senate Republicans were also trying to give Trump an off-ramp, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). They hoped to get as many as 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats to sign their letter to Trump, with the hopes that a substantial Democratic commitment to debating border security and a push from Trump’s own party could shift Washington’s stalemate.
But Republican support for the letter cratered this week amid a widespread belief that the president won’t support opening up the government without a border wall guarantee. The letter still might get sent, according to two people familiar with it. But nobody is superenthused.
“They came up with about nine or 10 Republicans. Which we didn’t think is enough to be convincing to the president,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“I think he’s going to agree to open up the government on a hope and a prayer when donkeys fly. OK?” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who spent more than an hour with Trump on a plane on Monday. “He says: ‘Look, I don’t want government to be closed. But I know as soon as I open it up, they’re going to say, ‘Thank you very much, I don’t want to talk about a border [wall].’”
Pelosi herself told Trump flatly last week that after the government opened, he would not get his wall. And that’s the last time they met face to face.
Since that meeting, their relationship has plummeted to a level of toxicity rarely seen. Pelosi surprised Trump on Wednesday by sending him a letter requesting he postpone his State of the Union address — or send it in writing — until the government reopens. Pelosi cited security concerns but the move would also deny Trump the undivided spotlight and pageantry that accompanies the annual address.
Trump shot back with a counterattack of his own Thursday, abruptly canceling Pelosi’s secret trip to Afghanistan in a letter the White House blasted out to reporters over email and Twitter before the speaker’s office was even aware he was doing it. The move was so last-minute that other lawmakers scheduled to accompany Pelosi had already boarded a charter bus set to take them to the airport.
“Pretty foul,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) about his mood after hearing about the back-and-forth. “Too much childishness. Not enough seriousness.”
For Democratic freshmen, their exasperation over inaction reached a boiling point. Several members of the new House class, including many who came from districts Trump won, have been meeting to devise a strategy of their own.
Some in the group seized on the circus-like atmosphere on Capitol Hill, holding an impromptu march to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Tuesday to demand he bring up House-passed spending bills to reopen the government. Some in the group tried again on Wednesday, delivering a letter to McConnell’s office and the Senate cloakroom demanding he act.
“Our freshmen were sworn in during a shutdown and only served during a shutdown and generally speaking want to find a way to end it,” said Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas), the freshman class president. He did not join in on the trip to the Senate but said he could relate to his colleagues’ frustration.
So could Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who held an unusual solo news conference on Thursday attacking Washington dysfunction. He said “everybody’s responsible” for the shutdown but offered no solution. Another high-profile freshman, Mitt Romney (R-Utah), seemed excited about being a senator but disappointed with the circumstances.
“I heard from one senator that it was very boring his first year here. It has not been boring,” Romney said on Thursday evening. “There’s a lot going on and I’m honored to be part of it. And I’d like to see more progress. I’m sick that the government is shut down.”
Senators are throwing out their own ideas to see what sticks. Kennedy suggested Pelosi and Trump each appoint someone, ship them out of Washington and make them get an agreement before coming back. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said bringing in more pieces to negotiate could shake things up: Federal spending numbers, the debt ceiling or immigration reform.
But Democrats aren’t open to anything other than reopening the government and then debating border security, which Trump will not do. Even those most urgently seeking an end to the shutdown won’t break from that stance, worried about encouraging Trump to seek more brinkmanship to win his priorities.
“Several efforts have been made by Republican senators, by the vice president, by people in the administration to try and find a path forward. And each time in the past three weeks the president has personally shot them down,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “Reopen the government and negotiate. Or there’s no point.”
Marianne LeVine and James Arkin contributed to this report.