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Senate Democrats block debate on foreign policy legislation to put focus on shutdown

Vote demonstrated opposition to conducting other business while government remains partially closed

Vice President Mike Pence walks through Statuary Hall on his way to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's office in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Mike Pence walks through Statuary Hall on his way to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's office in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Before President Donald Trump was set to speak to the nation Tuesday night as part of his border security push, Senate Democrats mustered the votes to signal they were not interested in other legislating until there’s legislation to reopen the federal government.

The Democrats on Tuesday blocked movement on a package of Middle East policy legislation, including assistance to Israel, seeking to send a message that they will not support the chamber taking up other business until a partial shutdown ends.

The Democratic senators representing Maryland and Virginia organized the effort, which led to a 56-44 vote against limiting debate on a motion to proceed to the legislation, which needed 60 votes for adoption.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky switched his vote from “yes” to “no,” which under chamber rules allows him to be able to quickly call the vote again. He then filed another cloture motion on the same bill, a signal that he intends to have the Senate keep voting on the same measure.

With the new Congress in its early days, McConnell does not yet have nominations available for floor consideration. When the 115th Congress adjourned last Thursday, the executive and judicial nominations on the Senate’s Executive Calendar expired as well.

Maryland Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen joined their Virginia colleagues Tim Kaine and Mark Warner in outlining their request to prioritize House-passed spending legislation in a “Dear Colleague” letter.

“We write to urge you to join us in voting against the motion to proceed on Tuesday evening because the Senate should vote on the House-passed Appropriations bills as its first order of business. We must restore services to the American people and address the plight of the more than 800,000 federal employees who are being denied pay and facing mounting bills,” the senators wrote. “Our position is strongly backed by the unions that represent federal employees, as well as a growing chorus of grassroots organizations who agree it would be wrong for the Senate to postpone action to reopen the government while one-quarter of the federal government is shut down and hard-working public servants are not being paid.”

Members of the Senate Democratic Conference, including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, came to support the strategy, which Van Hollen was pushing over the weekend.

McConnell has insisted that only government funding legislation that could secure the signature of President Donald Trump would be getting time for floor consideration, and on Tuesday he decried the Democrats for threatening to halt a foreign policy package that more than 60 senators would most likely support on the merits.

The majority leader said the Democratic objections to negotiating funding for the president’s requested wall at the border with Mexico amounted to a “partisan tantrum.”

“They’re saying their partisan tantrum is more urgent than pressing legislation that concerns our alliance with Israel or the Syrian civil war. Well, I hope that isn’t the case,” McConnell said. “I hope that my Democratic colleagues don’t pile on even more pointless obstruction.”

The vote came amid a series of floor speeches scheduled by Democrats to call for the Senate to take up House-passed spending legislation, including full funding bills for departments and agencies where appropriations have lapsed, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security. The Democrat-led House passed a short-term continuing resolution for DHS.

As the procedural vote on calling up the foreign affairs measures was underway, the White House announced that the president would be visiting the week’s Senate Republican lunch on Wednesday. Trump will be attending along with Vice President Mike Pence, who attends regularly. That will be coupled with congressional leaders heading to the White House for their own meeting over the shutdown on Wednesday. 

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