No clear backup plan after Senate defeated 2 bills to end the shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. walks out of the Senate Chamber following two failed votes on ending the partial government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Neither of the two bills to end 34-day government shutdown passed the Senate Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers in both parties and on both sides of the Capitol showed signs of frustration but gave no indication of a backup plan to reopen the government.

The first bill, the White House plan, was defeated 51-47, falling short of the 60 votes it needed to advance. President Donald Trump outlined the bill last weekend as a "commonsense compromise" which would have reopened the government, provided $5.7 billion to build a wall or fence along the southwest border and extended limited protections for certain immigrants.

Democrats in the House and Senate rejected the White House bill out of hand, arguing it asked too much and gave too little in return. A close reading of the president's proposal revealed it would significantly change U.S. asylum law, making it more restrictive. The bill would also create new obstacles for Dreamers and individuals with Temporary Protected Status to remain in the country.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia crossed party lines to vote in favor of White House plan, while Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mike Lee of Utah opposed it.

The second bill, a continuing resolution to temporarily reopen the government through Feb. 8, earned more support than the Trump plan but was still defeated 52 to 44. Six Republicans defected from their party to vote in favor, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Johnny Isaakson of Georgia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and freshman Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

The bill was strongly favored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and it was identical to a bill that passed the Senate unanimously last month. That continuing resolution was sent to the House, but hours before the shutdown began on Dec. 22, the outgoing GOP majority refused to take it up and instead passed a spending bill with $5.7 billion in border wall funding that was doomed in the Senate.

Ahead of Thursday's high-stakes vote, about two-dozen House Democrats crossed the Capitol and sat in the Senate chamber, including a handful of new members. House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the members were there to put pressure on the upper chamber and "send a message to this president: it's time to open the government."

Vice President Mike Pence was also on Capitol Hill Thursday to meet with Senate Republicans before the vote. According to multiple senators who attended the meeting, he was solely focused on passing the White House bill and despite predictions the Trump plan would fail, Pence did not come with a contingency plan.

The message from the vice president was "the vote at hand," explained Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama. When asked whether the White House presented a new strategy for ending the shutdown, Shelby said the White House and GOP leadership are looking at "a lot of possibilities" and have "feelers out," but reported nothing concrete.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota was disappointed in the outcome of the two votes and failure to reopen the government but said the exercise will "put pressure on both sides to meet" and figure out a way to end the shutdown.

Getting the major players to talk may be easier said than done. President Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have only met once since the shutdown began and it did not go well.

Trump invited Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to the White House Jan. 9 to try to resolve the differences and then walked out of the meeting after Pelosi told him she would not authorize any funding for the wall. The president later called the discussion "a total waste of time."

In the last two weeks, the Democratic leadership has adopted another firm position and is refusing to take up any border security provisions or vote on a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security until the president agrees to reopen the government. Comparing the situation to the president "taking federal workers hostage," Pelosi and others have said they will not negotiate until the shutdown ends.

"That is the fundamental premise and the Democrats have not moved off that position," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Thursday. "Once we settle that issue [reopening the government] then we can have a bipartisan discussion about the issues surrounding border security and our immigration system."

Given the personalities and factors at play, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested a more productive path forward would involve other voices in the process outside of the parties' leadership. "Because Pelosi and Trump are at loggerheads, I almost think it has to be something that is negotiated or proposed on the outside and then brought to them," Cornyn said. "Both of them have gotten themselves into a corner and it's hard to get out."

The White House has spoken with GOP leaders, Democratic congressional staff and a handful of rank and file Democratic lawmakers over the past month. It is increasingly obvious that the key stakeholders are not on speaking terms about the shutdown. Tensions further escalated this week when Speaker Pelosi effectively denied Trump a platform to deliver his State of the Union address.

"At this stage, there has to be a sit-down and talk between Republicans and Democrats. We can't just have the lack of communication that prevents us from getting to a deal," Sen. Romney told reporters.

On Thursday, Pelosi indicated she was open to another discussion with the White House but said she had not received an invitation. "They know full well that we’re here in order to have any conversations," she told reporters. "It's the President of the United States; we'll meet with him anytime he wants to meet."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was skeptical about another White House meeting, saying at this stage it is "not necessarily the way forward." The Democratic and Republican leadership have to reach a point where they decide they want the shutdown to end and they do not appear to be there yet, he continued, "I think the pressure point is both the president and the speaker have to figure out that they're losing, and, frankly, I think they both should have figured that out by now."

With no end in sight, federal workers will continue to be squeezed. On Friday, about 800,000 federal workers will miss their second paycheck. Contractors, workers who depend on the federal government will continue to suffer losses as local governments and civic organizations step in to help those who are struggling financially.

"I don't think the pain levels have hit," House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told Sinclair, noting that could change soon. Various agencies have warned of national security consequences if the shutdown continues, including the FBI Agents Association and officials with the Federal Aviation Administration. The White House has ordered all federal agencies affected by the shutdown to produce a list of government programs that would be impacted if the shutdown continues into March.

Federal workers organized protests at the Capitol this week and the air transportation unions have threatened to go on strike. "If that happens, the country gets shut down," Yarmuth said. "I think things would move very quickly at that point because then you're crashing the economy."

As of Friday, nine of the 15 Cabinet-level departments will have been closed for over a month. Those departments are Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury.

Agencies affected by the shutdown include the Environment Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Federally funded operations in Washington, D.C. have been disrupted and the Executive Office of the President has about 40 percent of its staff still working.

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