Senators gathered to celebrate their bipartisan effort outside the chamber in Washington on Monday, following a procedural vote aimed at reopening the government.
WASHINGTON—The 2018 government shutdown may go down as one of the shortest, and much of the credit for that is going to a bipartisan group of senators who wrested control from their own leadership.
Inside the Capitol, Democrats attributed their decision to allow the government to reopen to a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to bring an immigration measure to the Senate floor if an agreement can’t be reached before Feb. 9. Outside the Capitol, progressive activists attributed the reversal to the lack of a plan for how to stand firm.
“Democrats went into battle and then buckled and weren’t ready for it,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “There should have been an outside game that was planned.”
Senate Democrats agreed to reopen the government on Monday after it was shuttered over the weekend, in return for a promise to both debate and then vote on a plan in the Senate to give Dreamers a path to legal status. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains what may be next for an immigration bill. Photo: Getty
How Senate Democrats got to the point of charging forward on Friday night and then pulling back on Monday morning is the story of a Republican party more organized than the Democratic insurgents and centrists in both parties who challenged the partisan rhetoric of both Mr. McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.)., forging a path forward during meetings where one senator nearly broke a glass elephant with a “talking stick.”
A shutdown could be repeated in several weeks if lawmakers fail to reach agreement on a sweeping range of immigration policies, including protecting those children brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents.
This article is based on dozens of interviews with lawmakers, administration officials and advocates.
That the Senate would become the focal point of the shutdown surprised some of Washington’s top officials, who saw greater risks in the House.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump dialed into a meeting of the Freedom Caucus, a group of staunch House conservatives, and warned: “We’re one party and we control the House, Senate and White House,” said one senior administration official with knowledge of the call. “Shutting down the government is not productive to us gaining leverage on the issues we care about.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the call “sent a very clear message” and added: “That was the best work he did.” The House passed a short-term extension of government funding later that day.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) sided with the liberal wing of his caucus that was skeptical that Republicans would take up immigration legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) sided with the liberal wing of his caucus that was skeptical that Republicans would take up immigration legislation. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Some Senate Democrats, many of whom expected the spending bill would fizzle in the House, weren’t fully prepared for the shutdown fight now upon them.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) was pushing a three-week spending deal—shorter than the measure that passed the House—and a commitment by Mr. McConnell to take up immigration legislation. Centrist Democrats, crowded around Mr. Schumer’s desk on the chamber floor, wanted to back the Graham fix.
Mr. Schumer sided with the liberal wing of his caucus, saying there was no guarantee Mr. McConnell would allow the legislation to pass, people familiar with the matter said. The Democratic caucus was also still steaming over Mr. Trump’s controversial remarks about African immigrants.
On the other side of town, Mr. Trump was smarting over Mr. Schumer’s characterization of a lunch in which they had discussed immigration issues, including funding for a border wall.
“It took the president by surprise that Schumer would mischaracterize the meeting that badly that quickly,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “The president decided: That’s the end of those negotiations…That’s when we first realized that we might go to a shutdown.” Mr. Schumer has stood by his recollections of the meeting.
Later that evening, Mr. Mulvaney spoke with the president, who said for the first time he thought a shutdown was likely. “OK, what’s going to happen?” Mr. Trump asked. He told him: “Make sure we keep open as much of the government as we can.”
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, all but five Democrats lined up behind their leader and blocked the spending bill on a procedural measure that needed 60 votes. The government officially shutdown at 12:01 a.m.—before the final vote, 50-49, was gaveled to a close.
Over the weekend, Mr. Trump largely receded from public view, save for a few tweets touting the nation’s economic gains and criticizing Democrats for their role in the dispute that the White House said was “holding our troops hostage and our border agents hostage.” His re-election campaign ran ads that claimed Democrats were “complicit” in murder perpetrated by immigrants in the country illegally.
Democrats, meanwhile, found their offices inundated with phone calls.
“I called and left messages at their offices,” Gregg James, the vice president of a Minnesota branch of the American Federation of Government Employees, said of his efforts to reach Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Tina Smith (D., Minn.) He said he understood their concerns about immigration but that “we never feel shutting down the government is the right thing to do.”
Senate Republicans and Democrats alike were also growing frustrated with their leadership. A group of nearly two dozen members began meeting in the offices of Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) to hash out a solution.
“It is a pretty poor excuse to sit here and say: We can’t deal with President Trump,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), a member of the group, said on the Senate floor. “We don’t have to deal with President Trump. We are the U.S. Senate. We can make our own decisions.”
The Collins-led sessions began to grow. At one meeting, the senators used a Native American “talking stick” as a way of designating which member would speak at any given moment.
A gift to Ms. Collins from Sen Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.), its use wasn’t without drama, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Alexander at one point nearly broke a glass elephant with the talking stick during a dispute with Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) The senators eventually switched to using a basketball, tossing it to the next person due to speak. And Mr. Alexander apologized to Mr. Warner.
On Monday morning, the bipartisan group gathered with muffins, bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. “We had so many people in the office that we were running out of chairs,” Ms. Collins said.
One issue that helped bond the group was the frustration vented toward their own leaders, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Schumer.
“I don’t believe that either leader on either side should have the powers that they have,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), said Monday, complaining that it was too easy for leaders to force their conferences to block deals. “We weren’t going to be beaten into submission.”
Ms. Collins met privately with Mr. McConnell on Monday morning and urged him to make a stronger statement about his commitment to moving the immigration bill. “So that’s what happened, really,” Ms. Collins said.
Midday Monday, 28 Democrats who had initially voted to block government funding changed their positions and cleared the way for passage of the spending bill.
—Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.
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