Moderates move to break shutdown logjam

Moderate senators from both parties plan to meet Sunday to try to hash out a compromise to reopen the government, while hundreds of thousands of federal employees wait to find out whether they will go to work Monday.

Senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers continued to engage in informal discussions Sunday as Congress entered the second day of a shutdown that both sides wanted to avoid but didn’t appear to have a way to end.

Several moderates met repeatedly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday in hopes of convincing them to reopen the government through Feb. 8 and commit on the Senate floor to holding an immigration vote before that date, said one senator involved in the negotiations, who asked not to be named because the talks are private.

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The group hopes to end the brinkmanship that has erupted at the one-year mark of Donald Trump’s presidency. Democrats insist that any funding legislation extend Obama-era protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, while Republicans say they won’t negotiate around immigration until the government reopens.

The moderate group does not want the Senate to vote on any particular immigration proposal but instead on “whatever can get 60” votes, the senator involved in the talks said. McConnell and Schumer have not dismissed the idea out of hand, the senator said.

Senate Republican leaders plan to wait to weigh in until the moderates formally propose something, potentially after their meeting Sunday. But reaching an agreement hinges on Schumer and McConnell’s relationship, which has been rocky. The two leaders chatted on the Senate floor Sunday afternoon, their first time speaking since Friday.

“They don’t have anything yet. This afternoon they may roll something out and say, ‘This is what we want to vote on,'” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader, though he questioned whether a guaranteed debate on immigration would satisfy liberal Democrats.

“The argument that [McConnell] has made, and I think he’s right, is that shutting the government is not the way to get a negotiation on immigration started,” Thune said in an interview. “I think that’s going to continue to be his argument.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who has broken with his party, said Democratic moderates met with Schumer early on Sunday to try and plot a way forward.

The group of roughly 20 moderates includes Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

But it’s not clear whether liberals would accept what their moderate Democratic colleagues are discussing. They fear Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could repeat the exercise of 2013, when the Senate passed an immigration bill and the House didn’t take it up. That’s why, without an ironclad commitment from Ryan, they are skeptical.

“It depends on whether it’s part of a must-pass bill. That is my strong preference. The goal is to have the DREAMer Act passed,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in an interview. “I have no confidence, zero, in Paul Ryan bringing that bill to the floor.”

So far, House Republican leaders have rejected the idea of committing to holding an immigration vote on the House floor and are so far refusing to negotiate on anything beyond a three-week continuing resolution. Ryan said Sunday the House will accept a short-term bill through Feb. 8 but will commit only to an immigration bill “that the president supports to fix this problem.”

“We’re basically waiting to see whether the Senate will vote for this or not,” Ryan said of a three-week funding bill on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’re waiting for the Senate Democrats to open the government back up.”

House Republicans will meet privately at 3 p.m. to strategize their next steps.

Without a bipartisan agreement to yield back time, the Senate is scheduled to vote at 1 a.m. Monday on a bill to reopen the government through Feb. 8. The vote is likely to fail without a deal from party leaders on immigration and budgetary issues.

Lawmakers still hope to reach a deal before Monday, when federal employees would normally return to work, to lessen the impact of the shutdown.

But as the shutdown continues, bipartisan immigration conversations between the No. 2 leaders in the House and Senate have stalled. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have refused to meet with their Democratic counterparts — Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — since the shutdown began.

And much of the partisan rancor and finger-pointing that defined the first 24 hours of the impasse continued.

Democrats blasted Trump for walking away from an immigration deal with Schumer on Friday that they say could have prevented the shutdown.

“How can you negotiate with the president under those circumstances where he agrees face-to-face to move forward with a certain path and then within two hours calls back and pulls the plug?” Durbin said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Schumer offered Trump support for the border wall in exchange for a deal to protect the nearly 700,000 so-called Dreamers facing deportation. But since then, Republicans and Democrats have publicly sparred over whether Schumer was offering full funding for the wall or not.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of taking “hostages” in order to strong-arm the GOP into an immigration deal that has eluded Congress for years.

“This is the Democrats trying to hold our military hostage for an issue that has been with us for decades,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said on ABC. “I think we need to resolve it — the president wants to resolve it — but you don’t do that in the middle of a shutdown.”

But even Republicans seemed uncomfortable defending a Trump campaign ad saying Democratic leaders would be “complicit” in murders committed by undocumented immigrants during the shutdown. Republican leaders know they will need Democratic cooperation to break the shutdown logjam.

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily productive,” Ryan said of the Trump ad.

Democrats have criticized what they say is Trump’s absence from the negotiations, particularly as it remains unclear what kind of immigration deal the president would sign. Republicans say they can only agree to a deal backed by the White House.

“I think he should, instead of throwing tweets from the White House, pull together the four leaders of the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis today and negotiate,” Coons said on “Fox News Sunday.”

So far, Trump has not called for a meeting with the “Big Four” congressional leaders — McConnell, Schumer, Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and Republicans on the Sunday news shows gave no indication he would do so. But White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Trump has been in touch with GOP leaders throughout the weekend.

“The president has been involved,” Short said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Yesterday he was speaking to Leader McConnell, Leader Ryan. He also spoke to Kevin McCarthy.”

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders — who, like their GOP counterparts, are eagerly watching the polls to see which party the American people blame — received some bad news Sunday. Republicans in recent days have narrowed the gap with Democrats in polling ahead of the 2018 midterms, according to a new CNN poll.

John Bresnahan and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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