Senate Fails to End Government Shutdown, Plans Procedural Vote -- Update

By Kristina Peterson, Natalie Andrews and Siobhan Hughes Features Dow Jones Newswires

Lawmakers failed Sunday to end the federal government shutdown, which will stretch into a third day Monday as negotiations over immigration continued to roil Capitol Hill.

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The Senate was expected to hold a procedural vote at noon Monday on a measure that would keep the government funded through Feb. 8, but it wasn't clear if it would have enough support to advance.

A group of centrist senators from both parties had huddled Sunday in an attempt to chart a way out of the stalemate, fearing that it would harden as the shutdown's effects expanded once the workweek began, including potential furloughs for tens of thousands of federal employees.

That group didn't produce a clear-cut breakthrough Sunday night. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) came to the chamber's floor Sunday night to express his willingness to consider immigration legislation in early February if a deal hadn't already been reached.

"Should these issues not be resolved by the time the funding bill before us expires on February 8, 2018, assuming that the government remains open, it would be my intention to proceed to legislation that would address DACA, border security and related issues," Mr. McConnell said on the floor.

It wasn't clear whether this constituted enough of a pledge to satisfy Democrats' demands that the Senate consider legislation to shield young illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, known as the Dreamers. Their legal protections expire March 5 under President Donald Trump's decision to end a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

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The government shut down after Democrats, who control enough votes in the Senate to block legislation funding the government, refused to move forward on a spending bill that didn't include protections for the Dreamers.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) indicated Sunday night that Mr. McConnell's comments weren't a sufficient reason for him to drop his opposition to the spending bill.

"We have yet to reach an agreement on the path forward that would be acceptable to both sides," Mr. Schumer said. It wasn't clear whether enough centrist Senate Democrats might defect to advance the spending bill, which needs 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle.

GOP leaders would need to pick up the support of seven more Senate Democrats for the bill to advance, in addition to the five who already back it. The Senate had blocked a four-week spending bill Friday night in a 50-49 vote. Since then, GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both of whom opposed the bill on Friday, said they would support it on Monday. Mr. McConnell had voted against the bill for procedural reasons, in order to bring it up again later.

Mr. Flake said Mr. McConnell was now willing to consider an immigration bill on the Senate floor, regardless of whether it had the president's support. Mr. McConnell had said recently he would only consider immigration legislation that Mr. Trump backed.

"The important thing is breaking with the White House on this and not relying on the White House to give its approval," Mr. Flake said. "That's significant."

Most Democrats were quiet Sunday night following Mr. McConnell's comments. Before Mr. McConnell spoke on the floor, some Democrats said they were hoping to hear him shift his tone on immigration, which he had maintained should be addressed separately from the spending bill.

"For much of last week, Leader McConnell would come to the floor and say, 'Why are you conflating this unrelated issue?'" Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) said earlier Sunday evening. "For the majority leader to come out and say that [immigration] is also on the agenda of things we are actively negotiating, we've got these senators who are making progress...we will put that on the floor and move forward by this date -- that is progress."

Congressional leaders have been working to hammer out a two-year budget deal to increase both military and domestic spending. But they aren't expected to reach an agreement until the immigration debate is resolved. Lawmakers are also trying to strike a deal on disaster aid and a long-term reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Without an agreement Sunday night, the blame game that Democrats and Republicans carried on all weekend over the shutdown was likely to intensify, lawmakers said.

"I am really worried about where this thing goes because it's going to get nastier in terms of rhetoric," said Mr. Graham, predicting it would hit both parties. "First prize in a government shutdown is you get to be dumb, not dumber. That's the best you can hope for."

Republicans say Democrats have made basic government operations contingent on helping a small slice of American residents and have insisted that Democrats yield out of a sense of responsibility to the broader population.

The GOP has been pushing to reopen the government with a three-week spending bill, but Democrats haven't agreed to that without a path forward for the Dreamers. Mr. Schumer said he made significant concessions to Mr. Trump, including offering funding to build a wall along the Mexican border, but the president rejected it.

"The president must take 'yes' for an answer," Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor, urging Republicans to find a compromise with Democrats. "A party that controls the House, the Senate and the presidency would rather sit back and point fingers of blame than roll up their sleeves and govern."

The White House disputed Mr. Schumer's account.

"Sen. Schumer's memory is hazy because his account of Friday's meeting is false," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Sunday. "And the president's position is clear: We will not negotiate on the status of unlawful immigrants while Sen. Schumer and the Democrats hold the government for millions of Americans and our troops hostage."

Mr. Trump hasn't endorsed any specific legislation on the Dreamers, complicating a debate that was difficult even before his presidency.

The bipartisan group of senators hoping to reach an agreement on a framework that would lock the Senate into voting on an immigration bill in early February planned to meet again Monday morning.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump spoke with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas), Ms. Sanders said. If the Senate passes the three-week spending bill, it is expected to clear the House, lawmakers said.

Mr. Trump tweeted on Sunday morning his support for the Republicans' position and suggested the Senate change its rules if they can't reach an agreement with Democrats.

"Great to see how hard Republicans are fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border. The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked," Mr. Trump said in a tweet early Sunday. "If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget, no C.R.'s!" he said, referring to a continuing resolution, a stopgap spending bill.

Spending bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans hold 51 seats. Mr. Trump urged Republicans to change the chamber's rules so that spending bills could pass with just a simple majority.

But Senate Republicans have resisted that idea in the past, not wanting to eliminate the minority party's most important source of leverage. A spokesman for Mr. McConnell said Sunday that hadn't changed.

Mr. McConnell himself said he supported the current rules.

"I support that right from an institutional point of view, but the question is when do you use it," he said Sunday.

Although the Senate has changed its rules to approve nominees with just a simple majority, most senators believe lowering the threshold for legislation would erase what distinguishes the Senate from the House, a dynamic that has long forced senators to try to reach bipartisan compromises.

--Michael C. Bender, Kate Davidson, Bob Davis and Peter Nicholas contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com, Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com and Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 21, 2018 23:35 ET (04:35 GMT)