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Senate set to reject government funding plan it once embraced

POLITICO logo POLITICO 1/23/2019 By Marianne LeVine and Burgess Everett
a group of people standing in a room: The Senate was in session for just three hours on Wednesday, with no party meetings and no votes. A trickle of senators came through the hallways, none offering any endgame to the historic shutdown. © M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico The Senate was in session for just three hours on Wednesday, with no party meetings and no votes. A trickle of senators came through the hallways, none offering any endgame to the historic shutdown.

The Senate will take its first votes in more than a month on reopening government. But both a clean spending bill and President Donald Trump’s proposal appear on course to fail.

Though a short-term spending bill giving the president no new border funding bill passed the Senate with no dissent in December, it’s poised to fail on the Senate floor on Thursday. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the Nos. 3 and 4 GOP leaders, both said Wednesday that the “continuing resolution” cannot pass the Senate.

Democrats need at least 13 GOP votes to get to 60, and the pickings are slim barring a surprise change of opinion by Trump in the next 24 hours. Many Republicans say the president won’t sign it, so there’s no point in voting for the two-week spending bill written by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) intended to allow government to reopen and negotiations to begin.

Opponents include members like Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has met with a bipartisan group about how to end the shutdown, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a freshman who has attacked Washington for being dysfunctional.

"I don't know why we'd do that,” Scott told reporters. “This idea that you just open up the government ... then you deal with people that have said I will not negotiate with you, that's crazy."

Trump’s bill “represents an actual attempt to compromise and could get signed into law,” said Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for Tillis. “Schumer's proposal offers no compromise, no increase in border security funding, and would get vetoed.”

A number of GOP senators declined to say how they would vote on the clean short-term spending bill, including moderate Lisa Murkowski of Alaska as well as Republicans that are sick of the shutdown like Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who announced earlier Wednesday she would support the president's plan that includes wall funding and some protections for immigrants, said in an interview on Wednesday evening she would also support the CR.

"The shutdown is so extraordinarily unfair," she said. "I'll vote yes and yes" on both proposals.

Though a short-term spending bill giving the president no new border funding bill passed the Senate with no dissent in December, a similar blueprint is poised to fail on the Senate floor on Thursday.

Thursday's continuing resolution contains some differences from December's funding bill. The legislation, which passed the House earlier this month, includes disaster aid, changes to Medicaid and some limits on the construction of physical barriers.

Democrats said they were struggling to comprehend how a bill could pass the Senate by voice vote in December and then a similar plan could fail on the Senate floor a month later.

"Let's just vote for what you've already voted for,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

But Trump’s veto threat in December changed everything, setting off a 33-day shutdown and scuttling Republican support for bills that don’t offer more money for the president’s border barrier.

One senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal party dynamics, said McConnell and GOP leaders are trying to crush the “continuing resolution” to force Democrats to negotiate on Trump’s border wall.

“Our leadership is strongly encouraging us to set off a negotiation by having both go down so that it forces a negotiation,” the GOP senator said.

If there were serious efforts to whip senators, they were going on in private. The Senate was in session for just three hours on Wednesday, with no party meetings and no votes. A trickle of senators came through the hallways, none offering any endgame to the historic shutdown.

Republican sources said that a handful of GOP senators like Gardner and Murkowski may vote for the CR. But in an interview, Barrasso said plainly that the CR will fail when asked: “Correct.”

“The president has laid out a fair, reasonable proposal that shows a lot of compromise. And it’s time for the Democrats to do the same,” Barrasso said.

McConnell himself was more circumspect ahead of the vote: “We’ll see what happens.” He strongly praised the president’s proposal on Wednesday on the floor as "a fair compromise that pairs full-year government funding with immigration policy priorities from both sides" after Schumer attacked it.

The two leaders clinched a deal to have the two votes, essentially to demonstrate publicly that neither Trump’s proposal nor a spending bill sans wall money can pass the Senate. On Thursday the Senate will vote first on Trump's proposal, then on Schumer's.

"The first vote, unless you do it my way, ‘I’m keeping the government shut down’ – it’s the Trump amendment. Our amendment: open up the government and then let’s talk," Schumer said Wednesday.

Some Republicans, like Collins, could vote for both proposals. Murkowski said the proposals at least represent a step forward if not an actual solution to reopen the government.

“I’m at the point of being happy that we’re going to the floor and having an opportunity to vote on anything. I’m not very optimistic about the chance of passage,” Murkowski said, declining to say precisely where she will come down on either proposal. “I think it offers us an opportunity to proceed.”

Less surprising is that the president’s proposal will go down, too, given the inclusion of $5.7 billion in wall funding and restrictions on asylum seekers in Central American countries. That turned off most Democratic senators, and McConnell needs to pick up at least seven Democratic votes for it to advance. The bill also gives Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and people under Temporary Protected Status only three-year protections from deportation, while Democrats want permanent legal status for those immigrants.

Republicans are targeting three moderate senators to vote for Trump’s bill: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. None would say on Wednesday how they would vote. It's also possible that some conservative Republicans oppose the president's plan, which also includes large spending bills that fiscal hardliners loath.

So what happens on Thursday afternoon after both bills fail and the shutdown threatens to drag into next week?

“Then it’s time, I would hope, for the president to look for more things he can put on the table he’d like to do, like defense spending,” Blunt said. “But it’s also time for Democrats to talk about: If they don’t like the president’s DACA proposal, what do they like? You can’t just not like everything.”

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