The Senate will hold two votes to reopen the government Thursday, and all eyes will be on Republican senators, a growing number of whom want this partial government shutdown to end — whether or not President Donald Trump’s border wall gets funded right away.
Thursday will be the first time the Republican-controlled Senate takes up votes to end the shutdown since Congress let funding for nine federal agencies expire in late December, leaving nearly 800,000 federal employees without pay.
Two proposals are getting a vote: 1) a short-term spending bill that would fund the government through February 8 without money for the border wall, which House Democrats have passed; and 2) a White House proposal, negotiated among Republicans, to open the government with $5 billion in funding for the border wall, in exchange for a short-term extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the Obama-era initiative to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation that Trump’s administration threw into legal limbo two years ago. Neither bill currently has enough support to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
Instead, Thursday will likely be a show of just how little progress there has been in negotiations between Trump, Republican leaders, and congressional Democrats.
That said, the impasse over the government shutdown ultimately comes down to a difference in priorities: Trump wants a border wall before he will reopen the government, but Democrats want Trump to reopen the government first, before they talk border security. And in recent days, some Republican senators have shown an openness to Democrats’ position. One Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (WV), who has supported Trump’s wall in the past, said he will vote for the White House proposal in addition to the Democrats’ bill.
This vote will be a litmus test of shutdown negotiations.
These Republican senators might back Democrats’ plan to reopen the government
Last week, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) went on the Senate floor and said he thinks there’s a reasonable compromise to be made with Democrats: reopen the government for a short period of time, with the assurance that they will negotiate border security in good faith, and use that time to actually strike a deal on the border wall.
Portman is among a growing list of Republican senators who have become increasingly uncomfortable with the government shutdown. They support Trump’s wall — to a degree — but are seeing the high costs of a government shutdown. They’ve been working with Democrats like Sen. Chris Coons (DE), Tim Kaine (VA), and Joe Manchin (WV), who said he will vote for the White House wall-for-DACA extension proposal.
“I have got to say I have never been more frustrated than with this shutdown,” Portman said. “And I’m frustrated for a very simple reason — the solution is right before us. The reasons we’re in this shutdown is because both sides are unwilling to sit down and talk. That makes this shutdown particularly stupid.”
A number of Republican senators have been willing to support this idea of reopening the government without wall funding right away, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC), Susan Collins (ME), Lamar Alexander (TN), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Cory Gardner (CO). These are the Republicans who could conceivably vote for the House Democratic proposal to reopen the government, without wall funding, in the short term.
A number of the senators publicly with Portman are running for reelection in 2020 in states that have increasingly trended Democratic — like Gardner and Collins.
Collins said she thought the Senate should pass funding bills for large swaths of the government through the rest of the fiscal year, and leave the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which has purview over border security, open for debate.
“I would like to see [McConnell] bring the House-passed bills to the Senate floor. We could reopen much of the government where there’s no dispute,” Collins said on NBC. “Let’s get those [departments] reopened while negotiations continue.”
Gardner said outright that he would support a short-term spending bill without wall funding.
Others are getting pressure from the public. The shutdown, now more than a month long and the longest in US history, will soon leave hundreds of thousands of federal employees without their second paycheck. The Trump administration has already called tens of thousands of federal workers back to work without pay. On Wednesday, hundreds of federal employees filled a Senate building in protest of being forced to go without pay.
Social services, like food stamps and health programs for pregnant women and children, will run out of money by March. National parks are going without maintenance, and the shutdown is taking a serious toll on the nation’s economic growth. The American public overwhelmingly blames Trump for the shutdown and wants it to end. In other words, the cost of Trump’s fight for the border wall is much, much bigger than the $5 billion he is asking for — and lawmakers are noticing.
Someone always caves
Government spending fights, like most bipartisan negotiations, are about political parties exercising their leverage. It’s a game of chicken, where both parties are on a collision course that ends in a painful government shutdown. In the end, one party has to give in to the pressure.
When Democrats were in the minority in both chambers, they made the same successful calculation with government spending over and over again; they knew that Republicans needed their votes in the Senate to keep the government open, and that Republican leaders were wary of having a government shutdown on their watch.
For two years, Democrats used that leverage to successfully strip spending bills of what they called “poison pills,” including measures that defunded so-called sanctuary cities and Planned Parenthood and funding for Trump’s southern border wall. In exchange, Republicans got to hike defense spending.
(The government did shut down twice under full Republican control, but not because of widespread disagreement over the actual spending bills. The first time was about a disagreement over a separate comprehensive immigration reform bill, and the second was because Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was mad about budget caps.)
Most Republican and Democratic lawmakers acknowledge this dynamic in spending negotiations. Trump, however, who has always been nonchalant about government shutdowns, is now presiding over what happens when parties collide and refuse to budge.
The shutdown’s pressures are building. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are going unpaid. Basic government functions like maintaining national parks have been halted or dramatically reduced. Funding for key safety nets, like food aid, will run out in a couple of months. Already, Trump’s administration has responded to some of these pains, saying it would work to ensure tax returns are sent out on time and that food stamps are funded at least through February — which some critics are saying is even outside the bounds of the Constitution.
Democrats are holding firm: They won’t vote to fund Trump’s wall. But eventually, between Democrats and Trump, someone will have to blink — or risk having to explain to the American people why necessary government functions are at a standstill.
And then there is the final scenario: A growing number of Republicans are signaling a desire to end the shutdown, even if Trump’s wall isn’t funded right away. If this drags on, it’s possible that Republicans band together with Democrats, vote to reopen the government with a veto-proof majority, and fund the government without Trump’s approval.