Congress agitates to end relentless shutdown

Nancy Pelosi

In the letter, centrist House Democrats ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow the appropriate panels to consider Trump’s wall request after the government is open. | AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Government Shutdown

The Senate is prepping dueling votes while House centrists are pushing Pelosi to counter Trump with her own compromise proposal.

There’s a flurry of movement to end the shutdown on both sides of the Capitol, but no signs that either President Donald Trump or GOP and Democratic leaders are budging enough to end the standstill now on its 32nd day.

A group of centrist House Democrats, sick of political posturing, is pressing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to counter Trump’s immigration proposal with her own potential compromise. The group, led by freshman Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, is asking the California Democrat to offer Trump a vote on his border wall sometime in February if he first signs a bill reopening the federal government, according to a draft copy of the letter obtained by POLITICO.

Story Continued Below

And in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) forged a deal to allow votes on the president’s proposal, which provides $5.7 billion for his wall and temporary protections for some undocumented immigrants, as well as a stopgap bill pushed by Democrats to fund the government into mid-February. But those plans will require 60 votes in the narrowly divided Senate, and each appears unlikely to pass. The Senate passed such a stopgap bill in December, but that was before Trump came out in opposition. Now the president would almost certainly need to endorse it for it to get 60 votes.

Taken together, the moves demonstrate a renewed sense of urgency to get out of the impasse as a second missed paycheck for federal workers looms later this week. But neither side has moved off the central point separating them: Trump doesn’t want to end the shutdown until he has border wall money, and Democrats don’t want to negotiate until the government is reopened.

“We’re in a funny place. I don’t think the president wants to end this shutdown unless he’s sure his proposal will be taken seriously. And we can’t take his proposal seriously until the shutdown’s over,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Kaine is one of the Democrats arguing that Trump might end the shutdown if Democrats give him a firm commitment to debate border security in congressional committees, echoing a letter moderate House Democrats were preparing to send Pelosi.

“We understand that this shutdown was not caused by the 116th Congress, but it is our job to fix it,” the letter reads, detailing the hit the shutdown has had on federal workers as well as the economy.

It is unclear how many Democrats have signed onto the letter, but multiple senior Democratic aides downplayed the draft missive, suggesting their party was sticking together in a vow not to negotiate until after the shutdown is over. Trump has already panned a similar idea proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of his top allies in the upper chamber.

“We agree. The first step is to re-open government,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill, emphasizing their similarities, not their differences. Pelosi told Trump this month that she would not fund the border wall even after the government reopened, causing the president to walk out of their meeting.

However, the letter, being circulated among some lawmakers from red or swing districts, illustrates the pressure they are under to end the shutdown. Pelosi and Schumer have argued that giving into Trump’s desires would be rewarding “bad behavior” or “hostage taking.“ But some Democrats are starting to question that strategy.

“Give Trump the money,” Rep. Collin Peterson, a centrist Democrat from a red Minnesota district, told a local radio station Tuesday. “I’d give him the whole thing…and put strings on it so you make sure he puts the wall where it needs to be. Why are we fighting over this? We’re going to build that wall anyway, at some time.”

Peterson and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). wrote to congressional leaders and Trump on Tuesday, calling on them to “end the brinkmanship,” reopen the government and make a “good faith” effort on border security.

Later this week the House will vote on more bills to reopen the government.

In the draft letter, the centrist Democrats ask Pelosi to allow the appropriate panels to consider Trump’s wall request after the government is open and ask Pelosi to “guarantee” a vote for the funding package on the House floor by the end of February.

The lawmakers also say the measure should be open to amendment to allow lawmakers to protect Dreamers and those currently in Temporary Protected Status — ensuring that Democrats would be able to put their stamp on any immigration and border security measure.

“We promised our constituents that we would seek bipartisan solutions, and we feel that this proposal would gain bipartisan support and allow a transparent process to evaluate the true needs of border security and provide much-needed reform to our immigration process,” the letter reads.

DACA was on firmer ground Tuesday, after the Supreme Court appeared to reject Trump’s request for a quick decision on the program’s fate. Trump’s move to end DACA in 2017 was blocked by the lower courts and the Supreme Court signaled it was not likely to address it this term.

Looking to force Democrats to come to the table, Trump over the weekend proposed coupling border wall money with three years of deportation relief for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers as well as a reprieve for some immigrants whose home countries suffered a natural disaster or armed conflict.

McConnell (R-Ky.) called it a “strong proposal” on Monday and urged Democrats to “take yes for an answer.” But after consulting with Schumer, the two Senate leaders agreed to hold dueling votes that each side has been pushing. If each fails, it will send everyone in Washington back to the drawing board.

Centrist senators had been hoping to send Trump a letter endorsing a three-week spending bill and quick debate on immigration and border security. But they could only line up 10 Republicans to sign onto it given Trump’s opposition, leaving a short-term solution to the shutdown short of the needed votes as of Tuesday afternoon.

“Vote yes. The American people are looking for a solution,” Schumer said.

Rank-and-file senators are also continuing to meet to end the shutdown. But they’ve been doing that for two weeks now, only to see Trump reject their efforts.

“The people I’m talking to are trying to figure out a way forward,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Democratic leaders have rejected Trump’s offer, but rank-and-file Democrats may feel compelled to respond with a counter-proposal. Most, however, agree with their leadership that Trump must open the government up first before any real compromise can come together.

“We all agree its very important that we find a way to actually start talking,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), the leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, who met with Trump at the White House last week on the matter. “A lot of people just want to get this resolved… They’re impatient for a lack of conversation.”

“The president’s got to let the hostages go,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “We’re happy to talk now about border security and immigration reform. We can separately come up with a plan to deal with that. But the president is not going to get rewarded for shutting down the government.”

Meanwhile, furloughed federal workers are facing a second missed paycheck on Friday. Some have struggled to pay their rent or their mortgages; others, including 10 percent of TSA agents this weekend, are calling in sick citing an inability to work for free.

The stories of hardship faced by government contractors who will not receive back-pay are starting to bubble to the surface as well. Tamela Worthen, a diabetic security contractor for the Smithsonian museums, told POLITICO on Monday that she is not able to pay for her medicine or her home.

“The only thing I want is for my mortgage to be paid and to get my medicine,” she said. “I have a car. I have a time share. I have an electric bill… What can you do?”

Heather Caygle contibuted to this report.