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Bipartisan Senate effort to end shutdown hits wall

Democrats have said they will not give more than $ 1.3 billion to pay for border fencing, while President Donald Trump has asked for billions more. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Government Shutdown

Senators fell short in their effort to win support for a letter to Trump offering their commitment to a border security debate in return for reopening the government.

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A bipartisan effort to dig the government out of a shutdown hit a major snag on Wednesday, as Democrats accused the Trump administration of beating back GOP support for a letter to President Donald Trump committing to work on a border security package.

By the end of the day, the letter’s signers were stalled far short of the 20 senators in both parties that supporters were trying to accrue. Many Republicans wanted more of a commitment from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to move forward, and others thought it was pointless to endorse it if there was no signal from Trump that he might accept it. Senators had hoped to set up a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday afternoon, though the meeting never occurred.

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Trump has rejected similar proposals to reopen the government. And Democrats blamed Pence and White House adviser Jared Kushner for tanking the push.

“I found it wrong and doesn’t serve the country — when Republican senators want to sign a letter — for the vice president and Jared Kushner to be lobbying against it,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

A White House official said Pence and Kusher did not proactively lobby against signing the letter. But Pence previously relayed to Republicans that the president is unwilling to support a short-term spending bill that does not guarantee a big boost in border security funding.

Senators hoped to send the letter to the president as soon as Wednesday, and more than a dozen senators in both parties were expected to sign on. It would put in writing a commitment to take up Trump’s request for billions more in border security money as a condition of Trump opening the government for a short period, a gambit the president has rejected in the past.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been desperately trying to get the Senate to take action to end the shutdown. He said he spoke to Trump on Tuesday evening and is trying to get rank-and-file Senate Democrats to commit to work with Trump rather than rely on Democratic leaders to strike a deal with the president.

Moving forward depends on “whether or not the president believes this is going to be fruitful,” Graham said. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said they wouldn’t even send the letter if the group can’t get a critical mass of Republicans.

The letter says the group is “committed to resolving our current budget stalemate by strengthening border security and ending the government shutdown,” according to a draft obtained by POLITICO. It includes an assurance that the administration‘s $ 5.7 billion budget request would be taken up in the relevant congressional committees.

“We believe that such requests deserve consideration, through regular order, a process we support,” the draft letter reads, asking that the president agree to open up the government for three weeks to allow a debate “to give Congress time to develop and vote on a bipartisan agreement that addresses your request. We commit to working to advance legislation that can pass the Senate with substantial bipartisan support.”

Yet Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he wouldn’t promise to bring up anything in his committee until Trump and Democratic leaders have reached a public agreement. As far as the letter goes, he said: “I don’t think a lot will come out of it but you never know.”

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Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who has expressed frustration with the shutdown, said she doesn’t have “any objection to the letter at all. I’m just not going to sign.”

And Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been meeting with the bipartisan clutch of senators, said he needed some buy-in from Pelosi that any Senate bill would be taken up in the House.

“I appreciate the effort. The concern that I have is that we haven’t really moved the ball in terms of defining what lanes that we would negotiate with them. And having any indication that the speaker has come off of her position which is, I believe, $ 1 for border security,” Tillis said. “Could we at least agree with general guiding principles on what proposal that we would develop over 21 days would look like?”

Among the senators working on the letter are Republicans Graham, Susan Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio as well as Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Coons.

“Twenty and 20, that’s the goal. Twenty Ds and 20 Rs,” Manchin said,

The list of signers is not final and is still being developed. But with senators like Capito and Tillis not signing on, it’s unlikely to accrue the numbers Manchin hopes for. People familiar with the letter said about eight Republican senators had signed on as of midday Wednesday, and Democrats were eager to try and get more.

“I’m favorably inclined. Look, we want to get enough Republicans to have it be meaningful,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “If you can’t get more than a handful of Republicans to agree to something so reasonable, it’s a problem.”

Many Republicans have been reluctant to do anything seen as crossing Trump on the wall. But the letter as written doesn’t endorse any long-term funding plan without wall money, which could make it attractive for some Republicans to support.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said he “might” sign on to the effort. Last year, Isakson also supported a bipartisan bill providing protections for young immigrants in exchange for $ 25 billion, which Trump opposed and the bill failed.

“If it’s bipartisan and it gets us to a road map to a solution, I’ll do that,” Isakson said. “I’ll vote for anything that moves us in the right direction.

The draft does not include a direct reference to the wall, a physical barrier that is one of the president’s top political priorities and is the genesis of the shutdown. Democrats have said they will not give more than $ 1.3 billion in fencing, while Trump has asked for billions more.

“We will make our best efforts following regular order in the appropriate committees and mark up bipartisan legislation relating to your request. This would include debating and voting on investments on the Southern border that are necessary, effective, and appropriate to accomplish that goal,” the draft reads.

A group of GOP senators proposed a similar option to Pence and the president last week, only to see Trump reject a temporary funding bill. Trump has reasoned that this proposal could leave him with no border security increases, although the three-week timeline of the bipartisan letter would at least put real pressure on Congress to deliver and give Trump some leverage to force another shutdown if he doesn’t get his way.

“I don’t know what the latest position of the administration is or whether or not they would receive a letter favorably,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the GOP whip. “The Dems that are signing this letter are suggesting to me that they are going to be supportive at some point of the funding for border security and the wall. And to me that seems like a positive step forward.”

He said he won’t be signing on to the letter but was supportive of what members of his caucus are trying to achieve. Leaders in both parties have been skeptical that a bipartisan gang could be successful, but it’s the only game in town since the president and Democratic leaders haven’t met for talks about the shutdown for a week.

Schumer visited the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday to urge Democrats to lobby GOP senators from their state to sign the letter, predicting some GOP senators who have previously been outspoken about the effort will join, according to an attendee. Schumer’s lobbying could backfire: Few Republicans want to be seen as siding with the Democratic leader against the president.

Marianne Levine and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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