Chuck Schumer emerged from Mitch McConnell’s office after a 30-minute meeting on Thursday afternoon bearing a wide grin.
“We’re talking,” the Senate minority leader said as he walked back to his office.
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After five weeks of mostly radio silence, with Washington reeling from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the two party leaders are finally in a room together. And it might be just what’s needed to, eventually, end an impasse sparked by President Donald Trump’s long-running quest for his border wall.
Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) and Schumer (D-N.Y.) have talked often as they’ve run the Senate for the past two years, but the shutdown has brought a chill to their relationship. After Trump announced his plan to fund the wall and reopen the government on Saturday, it wasn’t until Tuesday that the two leaders spoke in depth about how the Senate would handle it, according to multiple sources.
But when they did, the Senate finally came alive. McConnell and Schumer agreed to set up two votes, one on Trump’s proposal, the other on a Democrat-backed spending bill, that both failed Thursday. The pair of doomed votes, however, is already spurring movement — demonstrating that neither the president nor the Democrats are likely to get everything what they want in the end and leading to the meeting in McConnell’s office.
McConnell and Schumer call each other friends but have yet to truly get in sync with each other as party leaders over the past two years, aides and senators say. But now lawmakers hope the two longtime Capitol Hill operators may actually produce a solution to the stalemate, provided they can get buy-in from the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which won’t be easy.
“I really think those two are trying. I’ve talked to both, individually, and they both want something to happen,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is a member of Schumer’s leadership team and the rare Democrat who speaks with McConnell privately. “If it was left to Schumer and McConnell we wouldn’t be here. People would be working.”
There are early signs that the two leaders have an exceedingly narrow path to maneuver. Two Republican sources familiar with ongoing talks said Schumer is better off talking to the White House, while a spokesman for Schumer said the Democrat made clear to McConnell that Democrats “will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise.”
And though McConnell and Schumer are both known as pragmatic strategists, they’ve been constrained by forces beyond their control. There’s Trump, of course, who wants his border wall and dismissed an initial funding measure backed by McConnell and Schumer in December. And there’s Pelosi, who now outranks Schumer in the party and is leading a caucus filled with liberals who feel no need to compromise with Trump.
The past week has been dominated not by spending talks but a growing Pelosi-Trump feud over the State of the Union and congressional travel.
It’s a “tough dynamic” as lawmakers try to get out of the shutdown, said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who works out alongside Schumer at the Senate gym.
“It’s very likely that the leaders try to engage” after the failed votes, Thune added. Just setting up votes after so many weeks of inaction is “a bit of a breakthrough and hopefully lays a bit of a foundation for… whatever might come next. But one way or the other, we’ve gotta get out of this.”
Even Trump told reporters Thursday that McConnell and Schumer are effectively empowered to try and strike a deal.
“Mitch is negotiating with Chuck Schumer,” Trump said on Thursday afternoon. “If they come to a reasonable agreement, I would support it, yes.”
But then he added: “We have to have a wall.”
Whether Schumer, who has been in close consultation with Pelosi, will bend at all toward the president still seems doubtful. The two have been in lockstep for weeks, and Democrats say there’s zero chance Schumer would do anything the speaker doesn’t support. The only impediment is Trump, they say.
But the maneuvering by the Senate leaders, who have a real working relationship through running the upper chamber, is seen as welcome news as the shutdown hits its 35th day.
“This vote demonstrates they’d better be talking. A lot of people’s patience is out,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who voted for both proposals on Thursday. “We’re a long way to a solution. But the only way to a solution is to get back to work. And we haven’t been working.”
McConnell and Harry Reid, Schumer’s predecessor as Democratic leader, were famous foils. Their relationship grew increasingly sour, culminating in McConnell blocking President Barack Obama from getting his Supreme Court nominee confirmed, and thus infuriating Reid. But they also got the government out of the last lengthy shutdown in 2013 and often were the starting point to end the crisis of the day.
The New York senator and his Kentucky counterpart have had a different relationship, with many senators on both sides of the aisle hoping Schumer’s arrival would ease some partisan tensions.
That hasn’t been the case in the Trump era, particularly as McConnell has sidelined Democrats by unilaterally confirming Trump’s nominees and going around the minority to cut taxes and try to repeal Obamacare. And even as Schumer and McConnell try to dig out of the shutdown, the GOP leader is mulling yet another tactic to steamroll Democrats by shortening the amount of debate time for Trump nominees.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called their relationship “functional.”
“That’s all you really want. You don’t want them to be necessarily pals,” Schatz said. “They seem to be able to work together when it’s possible and work together when it’s necessary.”
Yet even as they talk and try to clinch something that can pass the Senate, they must triangulate on behalf of Trump and Pelosi. Trump has proved impulsive and erratic in his demands, and he’s routinely stopped funding efforts that don’t guarantee him his wall. Pelosi has not bent an inch toward the wall itself but is entertaining billions more for border security, and Schumer has been careful to align himself with her at every step.
Some senators are skeptical that anything can happen between Schumer and McConnell if the House speaker and the president aren’t in the same room together.
“Only two people can actually get us out of this situation,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), referring to Pelosi and Trump.
“This is not an agreement that Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell can reach,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “This is ultimately only going to be resolved when Republicans finally figure out that they lost the 2018 election. This is not about their relationship. It’s about something much bigger.”
Yet Pelosi and Trump haven’t met in private for weeks. And on Thursday it took just minutes for Pelosi to dismiss Trump’s idea of a wall down payment as a way to reopen the government.
Until Thursday, McConnell and Schumer hadn’t made a real effort to try and negotiate on behalf of the president and Pelosi. In fact, they even had a deal not to hold votes in the Senate that don’t have the president’s buy-in and support from Democratic leaders.
But Schumer pushed for a vote on a House-passed stopgap spending bill and McConnell engineered a vote on Trump’s proposal, failed votes that culminated in McConnell calling Schumer and summoning him to McConnell’s quarters for a chat.
Now for the first time in weeks, there’s some hope about progress. But there’s plenty of skepticism, too.
“I never knew the definition of a box canyon,” Scott said. “But I can see one now.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.