The Slatest

Both Senate Bills to End the Shutdown Failed—but That’s Progress

Mitch McConnell
Is he actually smiling? (Sen. Mitch McConnell departs the Senate Chamber after a vote to reopen the government failed to pass, in Washington on Thursday.)
Jim Watson/Getty Images

The Senate voted Thursday on its first two bills to end the government shutdown. They both “failed,” in the sense that neither earned the 60 votes they needed to advance. These failures don’t, however, mean that progress wasn’t made. It took a month, but Congress has finally reached the offer-and-counteroffer stage of the process, even if those offers and counteroffers are still walls apart.

The vote counts on the two failed bills—one drawn up by the Trump administration and the other already passed by the House—brought unfortunate news for the White House, which apparently didn’t know which measure would get more support. Surprise! It was not the White House’s bill.

That White House bill would have granted temporary protections to existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries and Temporary Protected Status holders in exchange for $5.7 billion in wall money and further restrictions on asylum claims. It earned 50 yeas to 47 nays. One Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, supported it, while two Republicans, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, opposed it. The Democrats’ preferred option was a clean extension of government funding through Feb. 8, and it only “failed” 52 to 44. Six Republicans—Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Georgia Sen. Jonny Isakson, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney—crossed the aisle to support that, with no Democratic defections.

The disparity in support between the two measures shows that Democrats are holding their line more successfully than Republicans are holding theirs. Other evidence of that: Republican senators sniping at Vice President Mike Pence, during the lunch immediately preceding the votes, to end this mess.

There was almost a sense of relief among senators after the votes. The process of tossing out a couple of options at least killed off some lingering talking points, and could provide space for the “real” discussions to end the shutdown. If it wasn’t clear enough, the votes proved that Democrats will not give Trump his full $5.7 billion for the border wall in exchange for some tepid concessions. And Democrats’ insistence that if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just put a clean funding bill on the floor, it would get a veto-proof majority? That also proved to be off by 15 votes.

So what now?

South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said the failed votes were useful in that senators have “both seen what the original positions are; we both know where the votes are at.” Reopening the government is now a matter of “the leaders getting together and coming up with something they can present to the president.”

That, Rounds said, would probably be a stop-gap bill similar to previous continuing resolutions, but at least it could be open to amendments for border security. Trump has rejected ideas like this in the past, though, since amendment votes don’t guarantee him any money for the wall. Why would he change his mind now?

“Well, so far, he’s the only one of the two”—the other being House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—“who’s made a step forward. So if he makes one more step forward, he actually becomes viewed more as the adult in the room between those two. And if Speaker Pelosi refuses to do it at all, I think public opinion starts to turn it against her,” Rounds said. Pelosi, who’s pretty good with numbers, doesn’t see it that way.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also believes a short-term bill is the way out, and he has for several weeks. After the votes, he spoke to the president to pitch his idea for the umpteenth time.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed to be on board with the idea, though she did add that the down payment for the wall would have to be “large.” In other words, the White House is still in denial. But at least it’s recognizing the need to negotiate down from $5.7 billion.

Meanwhile, Sens. Richard Shelby and Pat Leahy—the chair and vice chair of the Appropriations Committee—told reporters that if they “were designated … by our respective caucuses to work this out, I bet we’d do it before 6 o’clock.” They did, after all, already work out a border security agreement within their committee last summer.

But Shelby and Leahy enjoy no such designation. Instead, they, Rounds, Graham, and every other senator in the building were waiting on a meeting between McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, which took place in McConnell’s office immediately after the votes, to decide next steps.

Schumer left after about 30 minutes. He was grinning—either because McConnell had moved in his direction, or because he was excited to blow off a pack of reporters.

Did they make any progress?

“We’re talking.”

Do they have a deal?

“We’re talking.”

It went on like this for another half-dozen or so questions.

They’re talking.

Progress.