A group of Senate Republicans camped out in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office Thursday morning seeking to come up with a solution to the ongoing partial government shutdown that threatens paychecks for 800,000 federal workers starting Friday.
The group includes senators who have sought to broker an immigration compromise that would provide additional funds for border barriers that President Donald Trump wants, while allowing certain categories of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. That includes some 700,000 “Dreamers” brought here illegally as children, and possibly a broader discussion about overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.
“People are talking. We’ll see what happens,” said Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has a good relationship with Trump and has personally pressed the president to make concessions on immigration policy to the Democrats.
“We’ve got a skeleton we’re trying to flesh out,” said Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “We’re going to try to do our best to show some leadership and get Democrats to the table.”
Tillis said various ideas the Senate took up last February, but couldn’t muster the 60 votes necessary to advance, were back on the table for discussion. One of those proposals, which received 54 votes, would have established legal status for 1.8 million young immigrants and appropriated $25 billion for a border wall over 10 years, among other changes.
“I think the way out has been apparent for several weeks. It requires an agreement between the Democratic House, the Democrats in the Senate and the president,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters before the meeting.
Tillis said discussions involve “funding the government, it involves addressing the president’s legitimate concerns about border security, it involves probably addressing some of the concerns that I have shared with my Democratic colleagues on immigration issues. Any number of things could be on the table.”
Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was “disappointed” in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s response to the ongoing standoff over money for Trump’s proposed wall along the southwest border. “There is a huge difference between her position of not one penny and the president’s position of $5.7 billion,” said Collins, also up for re-election next year.
Collins is in charge of the $71 billion fiscal 2019 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill, which nearly became law last year before Congress adjourned for the home stretch of the midterm campaign. She has repeatedly pushed GOP leaders to accept the House Democrats’ approach of passing bills other than the Homeland Security bill, where the border divide is, and reopening the remaining shuttered agencies.
Comprehensive immigration talks?
Pelosi reopened the door to addressing the Dreamers as part of ongoing shutdown negotiations but also suggested that it be part of a broader conversation about immigration laws.
“We haven’t had that discussion,” the California Democrat said Thursday. “We have said we’re going to protect the Dreamers. That is very popular in the country. We can do that very quickly. . . . But comprehensive immigration reform is what this debate should be about.”
Other senators at the meeting included Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is retiring after this Congress.
Shelby wouldn’t discuss details but said after the meeting that the group “just talked about any number of things that we would hope, mainly would hope” would produce a negotiated settlement with the Democrats. He said he planned to meet with Vice President Mike Pence soon but didn’t give a timetable.
Murkowski, who helped write her chamber’s $35.9 billion fiscal 2019 Interior-Environment bill that’s also been held up, emphasized that she thinks Trump wants to reach a deal.
“I don’t believe that he thinks that it’s a good situation when our federal employees are not able to perform the duties that they’ve been tasked to do or that they don’t see their pay,” Murkowski said. “He has made clear his priority is the border and border security. I certainly respect that and the shutdown is one way to get everybody’s attention. But I certainly don’t think that it benefits us to have a continued shutdown and I don’t think the president enjoys the shutdown.”
Meanwhile Trump was visiting the border Thursday in an effort to draw continued attention to what he calls a “crisis” of undocumented immigration. He said he still hoped to reach a deal with lawmakers to fund the wall and reopen government, and that he’d cancel his upcoming trip to Davos, Switzerland later this month if necessary.
Trump said he reserved the right to use emergency powers to tap existing funds, including at the Pentagon, to build portions of the wall if Congress won’t appropriate the funds.
“If we don’t make a deal, I would say 100 percent, but I don’t want to say 100 percent because maybe something else comes up,” Trump said of declaring an emergency at the border. “But if we don’t make a deal, I would say it would be very surprising to me if I don’t declare a national emergency and just fund it through the various mechanisms … and by the way, there’s more than one mechanism.”
The president said his lawyers have advised him “100 percent” that he can fund his border wall via a national emergency declaration.
Democrats and a few Republicans have said they don’t like the idea of raiding military construction and other existing accounts for wall funding. But if it paves the way for reopening the government by taking the wall funding fight off the table, some are willing to look at that option.
“I don’t think it’s legal. I think it’ll be challenged and I think it’ll probably be overturned in the courts. But it might be the only way out of this,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said Thursday.
Kellie Mejdrich, John T. Bennett, Doug Sword and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.