Lawmakers on Monday entered the third day of the government shutdown planning a noon vote in the Senate to break the impasse, in an effort to prevent it from hardening into a prolonged standoff that would become increasingly difficult to resolve.
Republicans have proposed a bill that would reopen the government for three weeks, but Democrats haven't agreed to that without a path forward for legislation that would protect the so-called "Dreamers," young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The Senate is expected to take a procedural vote on the three-week bill at noon on Monday, but it is unclear if Republican leaders will line up the 60 votes they need to clear procedural hurdles and pass the spending bill.
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A group of centrist senators from both parties met earlier Monday ahead of the vote, in an attempt to chart a way out of the stalemate. The group of more than 20 senators met over the weekend. Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) said he wanted those centrist Republicans to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to an immigration debate.
Mr. McConnell took to the Senate floor on Monday morning to urge senators around the track, using language that bore little resemblance to his partisan rhetoric of recent days. The Kentucky Republican didn't accuse Democrats of shutting down the government over the issue of illegal immigration, a charge he had leveled in previous days, and said that he respected the "passion" that both parties brought to the immigration debate and other talks. He also urged senators to listen to their better angels and repeated his offer to move to immigration legislation.
"We should not let the political feuds or policy disagreements obscure the simple fact that every member of this body cares deeply about the challenges facing our country," Mr. McConnell said. "All of us want to make life better for the American people."
Democrats were weighing whether they could trust the offer that Mr. McConnell detailed on Monday morning, which reiterated statements he had made the night before. Mr. McConnell stated his willingness to move measures to help the Dreamers, as well as border security and military spending, though he never used the words "I promise" or "I will." Still, the change in tone and the increased specificity had started to produce a shift in the Senate.
"I thought his statement was very helpful," said Sen. Angus King (I., Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats and who last week voted to block a spending bill. "We didn't hear the term illegal immigration, for one thing... I'm going to sort of digest it, but I'm encouraged."
The Democrats, who control enough votes in the Senate to block legislation funding the government, want to use their leverage to force an agreement to shield the Dreamers from deportation and extend them a path to citizenship. The Dreamers' legal protections expire March 5. In September, President Donald Trump decided to end the Obama-era program protecting them called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals but said he was giving Congress time to enact it into law.
Mr. Trump has expressed desire to protect the young immigrants, but wants additional immigration measures as part of any deal, beyond funding for the border wall he campaigned on. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said he made significant concessions to Mr. Trump on Friday, including offering funding to build a wall along the border, but the president rejected it.
"The president must take yes for an answer," Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor on Sunday, 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.
Pressure is mounting on both parties, as the workweek begins and more Americans feel the effects of the shutdown, including potential furloughs for tens of thousands of federal employees. Mr. Trump blamed the closure of government offices on Democrats on Monday morning.
"The Democrats are turning down services and security for citizens in favor of services and security for non-citizens," Mr. Trump tweeted. "Not good!"
Without an agreement or path forward, the 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."
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 the issue hasn't already been resolved.
"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.).
Mr. McConnell spoke with Mr. Schumer off the Senate floor late Sunday afternoon and aides expected them to continue discussions.
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.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump spoke with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas), said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. If the Senate passes the three-week spending bill, it is expected to clear the House, lawmakers said.
Write to Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com, Kristina Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Siobhan Hughes at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
This article was corrected at 11:51 a.m. ET because an earlier version incorrectly stated that Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, represented Vermont in the seventh paragraph.
Sen. Angus King is an independent from Maine. "Senate Plans Noon Vote on Spending Bill Without Clear Democratic Support -- Update," at 11:39 ET, incorrectly stated that he represented Vermont in the seventh paragraph. (Jan. 22)
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 22, 2018 12:05 ET (17:05 GMT)