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Moderate senators race to strike a deal to end government shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, walks toward the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Sunday. (Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, walks toward the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Sunday. (Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer)
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WASHINGTON — Efforts to end a government shutdown after two days had yet to produce a breakthrough by early Sunday evening, even as a group of centrist senators raced to strike a deal and expressed optimism that they were close to an agreement.

With the start of the workweek for many federal employees only hours away, and under pressure from President Trump, a bipartisan group of moderate senators tried for an accord on immigration and federal spending they hoped would pave the way to reopening the government by Monday morning.

But after a series of meetings including a conversation between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., lawmakers were still trying to nail down an arrangement. Some doubted it would get done swiftly.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, McConnell’s top deputy, sounded a pessimistic note early Sunday evening, predicting the government would remain shut down on Monday. “Right now yeah, yeah I do” think so, he said.

Other Republican senators who met with McConnell said they were encouraged, but offered few specifics about the framework for a potential compromise. Centrist Democrats appealed to Schumer to find a way to reopen the government, as GOP political operatives geared up campaign attacks against them.

“We recognize that ultimately it’s the decision of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She added: “We’re trying to be helpful in showing them that there is a path forward.”

The talks came as McConnell said he would bring up a proposal to fund the government through Feb. 8 at 1 a.m. Monday, or sooner. He blamed Democrats for the holdup and urged them to allow a vote sooner.

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“This shutdown is gonna get a lot worse tomorrow,” McConnell said as the Senate opened a second day of a rare weekend session. “Today would be a good day to end it.”

As evening approached, a sense of urgency was setting in among some lawmakers and the atmosphere was tense in the Capitol.

“If it doesn’t happen tonight, it’s going to get a lot harder tomorrow,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C. He said the White House was largely uninvolved in talking with the group of centrist senators and staff there “has been unreliable to work with on this issue.”

Graham, who at one point predicted a “breakthrough” Sunday night, said the emerging accord from his group was to agree to fund the government through Feb. 8 “with an understanding that we’re going to work on all of the outstanding issues, including immigration.”

Still, it was unclear whether that would be sufficient to satisfy enough Democrats, who have grown frustrated with the lack of a solution for “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children. Many Democrats have demanded their futures be addressed as part of any spending deal — even on a temporary basis.

Asked if McConnell had committed to date on a vote for dreamers, Sen. Richard Durbin, Ill., the second-ranking Democrat, replied, “That is still in conversation.”

Most senators remained cautious about the developments, adding quickly after each burst of optimism that any vote later Sunday or early Monday could easily fall apart and that the moderate group was sparking discussion but hardly in control.

Outside the Senate, the pressure for a deal was building. President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pressed senators to end the shutdown that reached its second day, with Trump lashing out at Democrats and urging Republicans to change the rules if the standoff there isn’t resolved.

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Ryan said that the House would accept a bill funding the government through Feb. 8. The Senate rejected a House-passed bill late Friday that would have kept the government funded through Feb. 16.

All Democratic senators except five who represent Republican-leaning states voted against that bill, leaving it well short of the supermajority it needed to move toward final passage. McConnell will need to win new Democratic support to get the Feb. 8 bill across the finish line, a tall order considering how united the Democratic resistance has been. But GOP leaders were hopeful a new urgency, and pressure from the moderate Democratic ranks, would help flip votes on Sunday.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, Ind., one of the five Democrats who crossed over, said he and other Democrats met with Schumer on Sunday morning.

“The pitch is we need to do what’s right for the country and he does, too. He feels the same way and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Donnelly, who faces a tough reelection fight in a state Trump won.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who also crossed over in the Friday vote, said of the shutdown: “There are more than just moderate Democrats or conservative Democrats, a majority of Democrats want it to end.”

As the day was just starting, Trump wrote on Twitter,” If stalemate continues,” then Republicans should use the “Nuclear Option” to rewrite Senate rules and try to pass a long-term spending bill with a simple majority, a notion McConnell dismissed.

The president has previously advocated changing a long-standing Senate rule requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation.

Schumer said the key to resolving the shutdown was for Trump to finally embrace an agreement on immigration the two were talking about last week. That deal, Schumer said, included funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that Trump “picked a number” for and that he accepted.

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“The president must take yes for an answer,” Schumer said. “Until he does, it’s the Trump shutdown.”

Throughout the day, Democrats and Republicans pointed fingers at each other for the shutdown and batted away charges of hypocrisy in light of past comments about shutting down the government.

Trump praised Republicans for “fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border,” while he said Democrats “just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked.”

Ryan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that if the Senate passes its bill, “We have agreed that we would accept that in the House.” Now, he said, he was waiting to see what would happen in the other chamber.

House Republicans huddled briefly Sunday afternoon. Members were told to be ready to go once the Senate acts, but there was no specific guidance on timing. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reiterated there would be no immigration negotiations until government reopens.

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short declined to provide assurances that the president would guarantee a vote on an immigration bill many Democrats are seeking in exchange for supporting a short-term spending deal.

“We want to have the right resolution,” Short said on ABC, noting that a group of bipartisan Senate negotiators have not yet released their complete immigration plan.

Democrats have been trying to guarantee protections for dreamers after Trump canceled the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. While there have been talks about trading those protections for more border security funding, as many Republicans want, negotiations have failed to produce a deal.

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On CNN’s “State of the Union,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney defended Trump’s “nuclear option” tweet, arguing that if “ordinary rules prevailed,” the government would be open.

In recent years, Democratic and Republican Senate leaders have changed rules protecting the minority party. In 2013, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did away with the 60-vote threshold for most executive branch nominees and judicial picks. Last year, McConnell ended it for Supreme Court nominees, clearing the way for Neil Gorsuch to win confirmation.

The battle lines over immigration have hardened as the spending talks have faltered. Republican leaders have cast the shutdown as the product of Democrats prioritizing undocumented immigrants over Americans.

But a debate has opened up in the party about how far to push that argument. Ryan questioned an online ad from Trump’s campaign saying the president’s immigration proposals are “right” and “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily productive,” Ryan said on CBS.

The practical consequences of the shutdown reverberated nationally and internationally over the weekend. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, proposed to use state funds to keep open the Statue of Liberty, a national monument overseen by the National Park Service.

Vice President Mike Pence, traveling in the Middle East, blamed Democrats for “a shutdown that has dangerous consequences for our national defense.”

American military personnel will be able to watch the NFL’s conference championship games Sunday despite the government shutdown, thanks to a new designation concerning the American Forces Network.

On Sunday morning, with the NFL scrambling to supply the games to troops overseas, the Defense Department designated TV and radio broadcasts by the AFN, whose key personnel were to be furloughed by the shutdown, “essential activities.”

The White House has said it supports the plan for funding through Feb. 8.

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