WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders and White House officials scurried around the Capitol during a rare Saturday session but offered no clear path to resolving the bitter spending-and-immigration impasse that led to a partial government shutdown at midnight Friday.
The mood seemed calm and quiet, as Democrats and Republicans huddled in separate closed-door meetings — emerging only to point fingers at the other party for a stalemate that has shuttered federal agencies and jeopardized government services across the country. On the House and Senate floors, no meaningful legislative business occurred, though lawmakers stayed in town and on call.
"We're on standby, hour by hour," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii.
On Saturday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would force another vote on a short-term funding bill at 1 a.m. Monday, unless there's an agreement before then. That will ramp up the pressure on both sides to come up with a deal over the next 24 hours.
The federal government has been operating on short-term spending bills since Oct.1, when the prior fiscal year ended without Congress approving federal spending for this year.
The shutdown began at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, after the Senate blocked a short-term spending bill — called a "continuing resolution" — Friday night as the prior short-term spending measure expired. Government agencies began ramping down operations Saturday, the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration.
In the Senate, there was one offer on the table that could lead to a breakthrough — a three-week spending bill with a promise to use that time to hash out an immigration deal and other contentious issues — but its prospects seemed to dim as the day unfolded.
McConnell signaled he was open to that proposal to fund the government through Feb. 8, and a key player in bipartisan immigration negotiations, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he thinks it could work.
“After extensive discussions with senators on both sides of the aisle, I believe such a proposal would pass,” Graham said in a statement Saturday morning. He said it would come with a requirement that if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement on immigration before the Feb. 8 deadline, McConnell would allow a free-flowing debate on the Senate floor to resolve the fate of the “DREAMers,” young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Those immigrants now have legal protections under an Obama-era program known as DACA. But Trump announced in September he would kill the DACA program and nix the legal protections for more than 700,000 DACA recipients as of March 5.
“I’m confident we can find a solution to Border Security/DACA once we start the process,” Graham said. “Success on this will lead to a breakthrough on all other issues.”
But White House officials and House Republicans said they would not engage in any discussions about immigration until Democrats agreed to re-open the government.
“The administration’s position is that as soon as they reopen the government, we’ll resume conversations on DACA,” Marc Short, Trump’s congressional liaison, told reporters after meeting with House Republicans. “It’s hard to negotiate on that when (Democrats are) keeping our border agents not paid, keeping our troops unpaid, not paying for American services.”
Immigration is a hot-button issue that animates conservatives and liberals alike, making it hard for either side to budge for fear of angering their base ahead of the 2018 elections.
Democrats are under intense pressure from liberal voters and Latinos to help the DREAMers — and to push back against a president they see as racist and divisive. Republicans face similar heat from hard-line conservatives who equate any legal protections for undocumented immigrants as "amnesty."
Trump revved up simmering animosity toward immigrants during his 2016 campaign, but he has given conflicting signals since taking office. He said last week that he wanted a "bill of love" to help the DREAMers, but then rejected a bipartisan deal proposed by Graham, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and four other senators.
The politics for the GOP are perhaps even more perilous. Some moderate Republicans say DACA has to be part of any broader budget agreement, and the Graham-Durbin bill appears to have significant support in the Senate. But Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would face a withering backlash from conservatives if he agreed to put that proposal, or anything similar, on the House floor as part of a broader spending deal.
"He's not going to do that," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-S.C., chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. "I’m 100% sure at this point we’re only going to focus on opening the government back up."
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn., said there was no other way to resolve the impasse except to link the two.
"We’re not going to get off this treadmill of (short-term spending bills) until we get serious negotiating on the budget agreement ... and DACA," Dent said. "It’s that simple."
Asked if GOP leaders would face blowback, Dent said: "They might, but that's the price of leadership."
Lawmakers continued to look for ways to resolve the stalemate Saturday, even as each side appeared to dig in for another day of political warfare.
Short said Trump spoke with McConnell Saturday morning and would be in contact with other congressional leaders throughout the day. But he said the president did not have any meetings scheduled to mediate the standoff.
In the meantime, the partisanship played out in dueling press conferences. House and Senate Democrats tried to pin blame on Trump and GOP leaders for failing to come up with a broad budget deal.
“We are at this point for one reason and one reason only, and that’s the incompetence of the leadership of the Republican majority in the House and Senate and the incompetence of the leadership in the White House,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., warned that Democrats will not support another short-term spending bill unless there is an outline of a broader agreement on other major issues, including long-term funding increases for defense and domestic programs.
“It's no use having another CR unless we have the terms of engagement on how we go forward” on immigration, border security and other issues, she said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the paralysis is a “mercurial” president and weak Republican leaders.
“Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Saturday. “Republican leaders refuse to move ahead without President Trump, and President Trump is so mercurial it’s been impossible to get him to agree to anything.”
Trump and Republicans labeled the impasse the "Schumer shutdown," saying the blame fell squarely on Senate Democrats who blocked passage of the spending measure during Friday's vote. The final Senate tally was 50-49, 10 votes short of the 60 needed to advance the bill. Four Republicans joined all but five Senate Democrats to stop the legislation.
“The Democratic leader took the extraordinary step of filibustering this legislation, preventing it from passing, and plunging the country into this totally avoidable mess,” McConnell said Saturday. “The American people cannot begin to understand why the Senate Democratic Leader thinks the government should be shut down until he gets his way on illegal immigration.”
Democrats said the impasse was not about "illegal immigration," but the fate of young immigrants with temporary legal status whose lives have been upended by the president's decision to end the DACA program. And, they noted, immigration is not the only issue they're fighting for; Democrats also want to resolve parallel standoffs over disaster aid, health care funding, and other domestic spending.
"The Department of Defense isn’t funded. Children’s health insurance program isn’t reauthorized. Community health centers aren’t reauthorized and funded. Disaster relief isn’t funded," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. "There is a long menu of things that are overdue to get addressed. We should be making progress on all of them.”
Contributing: David Jackson