Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate were struggling to end a standoff over immigration policy Saturday, as leaders from both parties tried to gain the upper hand by blaming one another for a spending impasse that triggered the first government shutdown in more than four years.
President Donald Trump, who canceled plans to go to his private resort in Florida this weekend, spoke with both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), a White House aide said, and lawmakers and the Trump administration engaged in a flurry of conversations through the day.
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Despite the shutdown, which began at 12:01 a.m. Saturday after the Senate rejected a one-month spending bill that passed the House, much of the federal government's work continued, as some departments' operations are deemed essential and some agencies say they have sufficient funds to carry on operations for a few days, while lawmakers sort out their differences.
The impasse marked the culmination of an immigration fight with deep roots on Capitol Hill, one precipitated by Mr. Trump's September decision to end by March 5 a program that provides protections for Dreamers, undocumented people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Democrats had hoped to use their leverage in the Senate, where they control enough votes to block Republicans from passing spending legislation, to force passage of a measure protecting the Dreamers. Republicans refused, saying Democrats shouldn't be tying government operations to the immigration fight.
Frustrated by the deadlock, Mr. McConnell threatened to bring a bill to the floor on Monday at 1 a.m. as a way to put pressure on Democrats to yield.
That capped a day of finger-pointing on both sides. In a closed-door meeting, Mr. Ryan read out headlines from the morning's newspapers that he said showed Senate Democrats were being held responsible for the shutdown, according to a person in the room.
Mr. Ryan told cheering GOP lawmakers that Republicans had been reasonable while Democrats had overreached and that the minority party was now seeking a way out, the person said.
Later, on the House floor, Mr. Ryan said "the federal government is needlessly shut down because of Senate Democrats."
Mr. Trump had been expected to celebrate the first anniversary of his inauguration at his Mar-a-Lago resort, but chose to remain in Washington on Saturday. A fundraiser at the resort would go on despite the president's absence, people familiar with the situation said.
The status of the president's planned trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum was also uncertain, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said, who added that it would be considered on a "day to day basis."
Mr. Trump so far hasn't endorsed any specific legislation on the Dreamers, complicating spending battles that were difficult even before his presidency. Without a signal from the White House, Republican leaders are wary of casting difficult immigration votes without assurances that Mr. Trump will back them up. Democrats have a similar dilemma, and are reluctant to vote for a spending bill, thereby giving up their leverage to aid Dreamers, unless Mr. Trump offers proof he will help the young immigrants soon.
Individual lawmakers stepped into the void, but a variety of negotiations ended without bearing fruit.
On Friday, Mr. Trump met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) over a cheeseburger lunch. The meeting ended on a positive note, without any commitments, and Mr. Trump said he would talk to Republican leaders, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. But, later in the day, White House chief of staff John Kelly called Mr. Schumer to say the ideas under discussion were too liberal.
On the Senate floor Saturday, Mr. Schumer responded, saying that "negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O."
White House congressional liaison Marc Short told reporters Saturday that the president and Mr. Schumer "had a good conversation" but that no agreements were made.
But according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) Messrs. McConnell and Schumer on Friday night were close to brokering a deal which would have funded the government on a short-term basis and provided that an immigration bill would be attached to must-pass legislation. The two Senate leaders were meeting when Mr. McConnell stepped out to take a call from Mr. Ryan, lawmakers said.
Mr. Durbin said later that Democrats want assurances from Mr. Ryan that any immigration legislation that passed the Senate won't suffer the fate of similar legislation in 2013, which never got a vote on the House floor. But Mr. Ryan wouldn't make such an assurance, drawing criticism from Democrats that he undermined a potential deal.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan said he was never part of any negotiations. "Any other blame-casting is just an attempt to distract from the fact Senate Democrats used the filibuster to shut down government over a bill they don't oppose," she said.
Despite Mr. Ryan's resistance, the episode showed a potential path forward in the talks. Some lawmakers believe that passing immigration legislation through the Senate would put pressure on House Republican leaders to vote on such a bipartisan measure.
A bipartisan group of senators met late Saturday afternoon to see if they could line up adequate support for a plan similar to one that had been under discussion by Messrs. McConnell and Schumer on Friday night. Asked if more lawmakers were coalescing around the plan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who by evening was shuttling back and forth between the offices of the two Senate leaders, said "we're hoping that will be the case."
Under the plan, amendment votes would be permitted. Mr. Graham had made strides in building support for such an approach on Friday night, according to Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio). "We came very close to something that many Democrats felt was reasonable," Mr. Portman said.
Such a resolution remains possible. A spokesman for Mr. McConnell said that one possibility "might be to have votes on multiple bills. But unless the current negotiations fail, that's still a hypothetical situation."
--Michael C. Bender contributed to this article.
Write to Siobhan Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org, Kristina Peterson at email@example.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 20, 2018 21:07 ET (02:07 GMT)
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