Senate Pushes to End Budget Standoff as Government Shutdown Continues

By FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Lawmakers worked Sunday to break the impasse that had extended the federal government shutdown into a second day, in an effort to prevent it from hardening into a prolonged standoff expected to be increasingly difficult to resolve.

A group of centrist senators from both parties huddled in an attempt to chart a course out of the stalemate. As the hours passed, pressure mounted on both parties, with lawmakers aware that the shutdown's effects would expand as the workweek began, including potential furloughs for tens of thousands of federal employees.

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Without an agreement Sunday night, a blame game that Democrats and Republicans carried on all weekend 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 Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), 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."

Democrats, who control enough votes in the Senate to block legislation funding the government, have attempted to use their leverage to force an agreement to shield the Dreamers, whose legal protections expire March 5 under President Donald Trump's decision to end a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

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 bipartisan group of senators said they were hoping to reach an agreement on a framework that would lock the Senate into voting on an immigration bill in early February, as part of a deal to reopen the government.

"Then we have to have in our own mind some way to assure that the House feels the need to bring up the issue as well," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.)

But GOP leaders appeared reluctant to commit to any steps that would tie the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

"Turning the agenda over to Democrats who just shut down the government makes no sense to me. It just seems like it encourages bad behavior," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) told reporters. "I think the leader needs the flexibility to figure out timing and vehicle" of any vote on an immigration bill, he said.

Mr. McConnell spoke with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) off the Senate floor late Sunday afternoon and aides expected them to continue discussions.

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 border with Mexico, but that 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."

On Sunday, much of the Senate activity centered on the bipartisan group of senators working to come up with a compromise. Mr. Graham said Mr. McConnell had made clear that immigration would be among the issues they would consider when the government is reopened. But Mr. Graham said he was hoping to get a pledge from Mr. McConnell that he would bring an immigration bill to the Senate floor in early February, if it hasn't already been resolved.

"I think that would be enough for a lot of people," Mr. Graham told reporters.

Mr. McConnell had previously said he would bring up immigration legislation only if it had Mr. Trump's support. But GOP senators said Saturday he had told them he would be willing to bring up an immigration bill even without Mr. Trump's endorsement.

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

Mr. McConnell threatened to hold the next procedural vote on the three-week spending bill at 1 a.m. Monday, but lawmakers could reach a unanimous agreement to hold it earlier, or at a later hour Monday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump spoke with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and Mr. Cornyn, 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 morning that hadn't changed.

Mr. McConnell himself said Sunday 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.

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 19:33 ET (00:33 GMT)

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