Capitol Hill: A Shutdown Pivot

Published on January 24, 2019

With the President conceding there will be no State of the Union address until the shutdown is brought to an end, attention is now shifting to the Senate, which this afternoon will be voting on dueling back-to-back Republican and Democratic proposals to end the shutdown, neither of which are likely to pass. 

*** But we suspect the likely twin defeats, the first a Republican bill incorporating President Trump’s border wall funding and the second the Democratic-drafted clean reopening of the government until February 8, will in themselves mark a crucial pivot bringing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has stood back after President Trump reversed on a pre-Christmas bill to keep the government open — into an essential bridging role across the partisan chasm between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. ***

*** In particular, we understand the votes are likely to set in motion quiet negotiations between the McConnell and Pelosi staff to craft legislative language going into a bill that can pass both the Senate and House. While details are likely to only become apparent early next week, the deal making may turn into a “go big” resolution, drawing on some of the ideas on immigration reform being put on the table by White House special advisor Jared Kushner and on a broader border security bill being drafted in the House. If the “go big” option falters, the mood will shift instantly to discovering the bare minimum consensus of more money for border security without more “wall.” ***

Despite a heavy sense of caution, our sense is of a path to a resolution to the shutdown that could come as soon as the end of next week. 

“Dead as a Thursday”

On Tuesday, with the Senate about to return to session, Republican Senator John Kennedy was asked about the status of the negotiations to end the shutdown. The Louisiana Senator made a reference to the congressional workweek that traditionally begins on Tuesday and ends on Thursday by quipping they were “as dead as a Thursday.” 

But in the last 24 hours, with the media highlighting the hardships of the 800,000 federal workers or the dueling taunts and threats between the President and House Speaker over the status of the State of the Union address, there have been some concessionary-sounding remarks from both sides that would suggest the political cost of continued dysfunction is starting to mount.

In particular, the announcement late Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had worked out an agreement for the back-to-back cloture votes on two rival proposed bills to the shutdown, we think, marks more of an important breakthrough than the likely defeat of both bills would suggest.

The first Senate vote will be on the Trump proposal made on Saturday that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby’s staff pulled together into legislative language as the “End the Shutdown and Secure the Border Act.” It will be presented as an amendment attached to a House-passed spending bill, H.R.268.

The bill would reopen the four still unfunded government agencies through Sept. 30 — including back pay for, somewhat ironically, border security agents as well as the other 800,000 federal employees — while funding a variety of other immigration measures and, of course, the full $5.7 billion request to start further construction of the border wall. 

To sweeten the deal, McConnell added some $12.7 billion in funding for hurricane and wildfire disaster relief and an extension of funding for the Violence Against Women Act to make it that much more painful for Democrats to vote against. 

The second measure, drafted by Schumer’s staff, is a clean extension of funding to reopen the four agencies through Feb. 8, during which time would be set aside to debate border security and perhaps broader immigration reforms. It is a virtual repeat of the bill McConnell himself had to pull from a pre-Christmas floor vote after President Trump reversed on his support for the bill in doubling down on his demands for funding for a wall. 

Both bills are highly likely to fall short of a 60-vote majority, though each bill may pick off a few centrists on each side — one moderate, Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins indicated she will simply vote for both bills. But it is almost a given that neither McConnell nor Schumer would have pushed ahead with the rapid “unanimous consent” to waive 60 hours of debate on each bill unless they were confident they had the no votes to defeat the rival bills.

Staff Work Behind the Scenes

But our sense of the mood on Capitol Hill is for all the testing of wills and political positioning by the President and the House Speaker, the entry of the Senate into the shutdown negotiations with hard votes on the two partisan bills will bring into stark relief the emptiness of the two ideologically hardened stances. 

And more to the point, we understand it will set in motion a start to the first real negotiations, in this case between the McConnell and Pelosi staff — who know each other well — to work on what is likely to be some form of a “go bigger” overlap of the demands on each side that will enable each to claim political victory without seemingly ceding on core positions. 

The details of that for now still vague outline of going bigger will only begin to perhaps leak out over the weekend and early next week. But it is likely to take shape to some degree around the earlier proposal by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to reopen the government immediately in return for a commitment to work towards legislation for expanded border security and perhaps broader immigration reform.

In a parallel track, the White House is holding a meeting later today, organized by Jared Kushner in his capacity as a senior advisor to the President, with various Hispanic organizations on possible paths to a more comprehensive immigration that would include many Democratic demands. 

Meanwhile, House Democrats are also meeting today to finalize an expanded border security plan that would include a big boost in border security funding near or even exceeding President Trump’s requested $5.7 billion: the bill’s funding, on the condition the government is first reopened, would go into infrastructure, aid to Central America, more judges, more security personnel pay, high technology security measures, and even some form of a steel-slat “barrier” at needed points along the border — just about everything would be in the bill but the word “wall.” 

Echoes of the “Grand Bargain”

The efforts to end the shutdown impasse will be fraught with foreboding political legacy, in that a similar in form “Grand Bargain” budget negotiation between then President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner successfully ended the budget impasse of 2013 but wrought years of tears for everyone else in hampering the budget process. 

Nevertheless, the political costs are starting to seriously mount, on both sides, and our sense is that both the President and the House Speaker are turning to the Senate to pick up on these two tracks being initiated by Kushner and House appropriators. Our sense of McConnell’s thinking is to engineer a draft legislation that will ensure the President will be able to claim a victory of increased funding and attention on border security.

For Pelosi, she will care less about the higher funding for border security as long as it is not all going into a “wall.” Indeed, she has already “won” in consolidating her support within the Democratic ranks and ensuring she escapes the fate of her weakened predecessors, former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. 

And if the “go big” approach doesn’t work in getting to 60 votes in the Senate or 218 in the House, much less winning the nod from the President, the default position by the middle of next week is very likely going to be “just get it over with,” a clean bill simply reopening the government would come to at least allow a resumption of governing.

Both McConnell and Pelosi, for one, are anxious to get back on track without the distractions of the shutdown showdown to move on the confirmation hearings in the Senate for the Attorney General nominee William Barr, and on the House side, to reschedule the postponed Michael Cohen testimony, if it is to be held at all.

Back to list