WASHINGTON — Republican and Democratic leaders hunted Friday for a way to halt the 35-day partial government shutdown, but remained at odds over President Donald Trump’s demand that any compromise include money for his coveted border wall.
Senators were talking with increased urgency after Thursday’s defeat of competing proposals from Trump and the Democrats. The bipartisan talks provided a glimmer of hope that some agreement could be reached to temporarily halt the longest-ever closure of federal agencies.
“There are discussions on the Senate side. We are in touch with them,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Friday morning as she entered the Capitol. Asked about Trump’s demands for border security measures as part of a bill temporarily reopening government, Pelosi said, “we’ll see what happens today. One step at a time.”
Pelosi was referring to a Thursday meeting between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to explore potential next steps for solving the vitriolic stalemate.
Pressure is building among both parties to reopen agencies immediately and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.
But the idea has not been endorsed by Trump, who says any short-term deal must include a large down-payment for a border wall — an idea Pelosi and Schumer immediately rejected.
The Democrats were waiting Friday to hear back from McConnell about his discussions with the White House, according to a Senate Democratic aide who was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the toll of the shutdown was being felt at airports across the countries. The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday reported delays in air travel because of a “slight increase in sick leave” at two East Coast air traffic control facilities. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump has been briefed on the airport delays and was monitoring the situation.
At the White House Thursday, Trump told reporters he’d support “a reasonable agreement” to reopen the government. He suggested he’d also want a “prorated down payment” for his long-sought border wall with Mexico but didn’t describe the term. He said he has “other alternatives” for getting wall funding, an apparent reference to his disputed claim that he could declare a national emergency and fund the wall’s construction using other programs in the federal budget.
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t offer much clarity.
“I’m not going to negotiate in the press, but we’ve laid out a proposal of not what we want, but what the people and the professionals at the border say that they need to do their jobs,” Sander said. “And that’s what the president wants to see happen. And we are going to work to get there one way or another.”
Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.
“At least we’re talking about it. That’s better than it was before,” McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began Dec. 22. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Friday that it is still up for Pelosi and Trump to take the lead, even as a clamor is growing in the Senate for McConnell and Schumer to grab the reins.
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats have made clear that “they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise.”
Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting 800,000 federal workers, who on Friday face a second two-week payday with no paychecks.
In an embarrassment to Trump, the Democratic proposal got two more votes Thursday than the GOP plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53-47. Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including freshman Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who’s clashed periodically with the president.
The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopening the government through September and giving Trump the $5.7 billion he’s demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he’d long promised Mexico would finance. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.
Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. It was aimed at giving bargainers time to seek an accord while getting paychecks to government workers who are either working without pay or being forced to stay home.
Thursday’s votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with restive GOP senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said their message to Pence was, “Find a way forward.”
Flustered lawmakers said Thursday’s roll calls could be a reality check that would prod the start of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.
McConnell’s engagement was viewed as a constructive sign because he has a history of helping resolve partisan standoffs. For weeks, he’d let Trump and Democrats try reaching an accord and, until Thursday, had barred any votes on legislation Trump would not sign.
In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out Friday. But Pelosi said the rollout is on hold to see what develops in the Senate talks.
The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7 billion, the same amount Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures. In a plan the rejected Senate GOP plan mirrored, Trump on Saturday proposed to reopen government if he got his wall money. He also proposed to revamp immigration laws, including new restrictions on Central American minors seeking asylum in the U.S. and temporary protections for immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the vote for the Republican plan was 50-47, not 51-47 as initially announced by the Senate.