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Senate moderates try to break shutdown logjam

Moderate senators from both parties plan to meet again Sunday to try to hash out a compromise to reopen the government, while hundreds of thousands of federal employees wait to find out whether they will go to work Monday.

Senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers continued to engage in informal discussions Sunday morning as Congress entered the second day of a shutdown that both sides wanted to avoid but didn’t appear to have a way to end.

Several moderates met repeatedly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday in hopes of convincing them to reopen the government through Feb. 8 and commit on the Senate floor to holding an immigration vote before that date, said one senator involved in the negotiations, who asked not to be named because the talks are private.

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The group hopes to end the brinkmanship that has erupted at the one-year mark of Donald Trump’s presidency. Democrats insist that any funding legislation extend Obama-era protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, while Republicans say they won’t negotiate around immigration until the government reopens.

The moderate group does not want the Senate to vote on any particular immigration proposal but instead on “whatever can get 60” votes, the senator involved in the talks said. McConnell and Schumer have not dismissed the idea out of hand, the senator said.

Senate Republican leaders plan to wait to weigh in until the moderates formally propose something, potentially after their meeting Sunday. But reaching an agreement hinges on Schumer and McConnell’s relationship, and the two have not spoken since Friday.

“They don’t have anything yet. This afternoon they may roll something out and say, ‘This is what we want to vote on,'” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader, though he questioned whether a guaranteed debate on immigration would satisfy liberal Democrats.

“The argument that [McConnell] has made, and I think he’s right, is that shutting the government is not the way to get a negotiation on immigration started,” Thune said in an interview. “I think that’s going to continue to be his argument.”

House Republican leaders have rejected the idea of committing to holding an immigration vote on the House floor and are so far refusing to negotiate on anything beyond a three-week continuing resolution.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Sunday the House will accept a short-term bill through Feb. 8 but will commit only to an immigration bill “that the president supports to fix this problem.”

“We’re basically waiting to see whether the Senate will vote for this or not,” Ryan said of a three-week funding bill on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’re waiting for the Senate Democrats to open the government back up.”

The Senate is scheduled to vote at 1 a.m. Monday on a bill to reopen the government through Feb. 8, which is likely to fail without a deal from party leaders on immigration and budgetary issues.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Lawmakers still hope to reach a deal before Monday, when federal employees would normally return to work, to lessen the impact of the shutdown.

But as the shutdown continues, bipartisan conversations between the No. 2 leaders in the House and Senate have stalled. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have refused to meet with their Democratic counterparts — Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — since the shutdown began.

And much of the partisan rancor and finger-pointing that defined the first 24 hours of the impasse continued.

Democrats blasted Trump for walking away from an immigration deal with Schumer on Friday that they say could have prevented the shutdown.

“How can you negotiate with the president under those circumstances where he agrees face-to-face to move forward with a certain path and then within two hours calls back and pulls the plug?” Durbin said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Schumer offered Trump support for the border wall in exchange for a deal to protect the nearly 700,000 so-called Dreamers facing deportation. But since then, Republicans and Democrats have publicly sparred over whether Schumer was offering full funding for the wall or not.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of taking “hostages” in order to strong-arm the GOP into an immigration deal that has eluded Congress for years.

“This is the Democrats trying to hold our military hostage for an issue that has been with us for decades,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said on ABC. “I think we need to resolve it — the president wants to resolve it — but you don’t do that in the middle of a shutdown.”

But even Republicans seemed uncomfortable defending a Trump campaign ad saying Democratic leaders would be “complicit” in murders committed by undocumented immigrants during the shutdown.

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily productive,” Ryan said of the ad. “It’s no secret the president has strong views on immigration.”

The Senate was to gavel in at 1 p.m. Sunday, and the House is scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m. House Republicans will meet privately at 3 p.m.

Marc Short is pictured. | Getty Images

Democratic leaders — who, like their GOP counterparts, are eagerly watching the polls to see which party the American people blame — received some bad news Sunday. Republicans in recent days have narrowed the gap with Democrats in polling ahead of the 2018 midterms, according to a new CNN poll.

Trump, who hasn’t been seen in public since the shutdown began, threatened to derail ongoing negotiations Sunday morning. The president tweeted that McConnell should employ the “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to allow Republicans to pass any bill with just 51 votes.

“Great to see how hard Republicans are fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border. The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked. If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget, no C.R.’s!” Trump tweeted.

A McConnell spokesman quickly ruled out the idea, saying it isn’t supported by the Senate Republican Conference. And McConnell showed no desire to nix the legislative filibuster when Trump made similar demands in the past, knowing that the long-term consequences could be dire for Republicans if Democrats take back control of the chamber in November.

Democrats have criticized what they say is Trump’s absence from the negotiations, particularly as it remains unclear what kind of immigration deal the president would sign. Republicans say they can only agree to a deal backed by the White House.

“I think he should, instead of throwing tweets from the White House, pull together the four leaders of the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis today and negotiate,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” Coons is one of about 20 moderate senators trying to reach a bipartisan agreement that could end the impasse.

So far, Trump has not called for a meeting with the “Big Four” congressional leaders — McConnell, Schumer, Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and Republicans making the Sunday show rounds gave no indication he would do so.

“I think what presidents should do is leave room for negotiation to get a solution. That’s exactly what he’s doing,” Ryan said.

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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