A splintered US Senate on Thursday swatted down competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 34-day partial government shutdown, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies and the damage it is inflicting around the US.
In the first serious exchange in weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, quickly called Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to his office to explore potential next steps to solve the vitriolic stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.
At the White House, US President Donald Trump told reporters that he would support “a reasonable agreement.”
He said he would also want a “prorated down payment” for his long-sought border wall with Mexico, but did not describe the term.
Trump 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.
“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 on Dec. 22 last year.
Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat whose relationship with Trump appears to sour daily, told reporters that a “big” down payment would not be “a reasonable agreement.”
Asked if she knew how much money Trump meant, Pelosi said: “I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about.”
Schumer’s spokesman, Justin Goodman, said that 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 yesterday faced a second two-week payday with no paychecks.
Underscoring the strains, US Senator Michael Bennet angrily said on the Senate floor that Senator Ted Cruz had forced a 2013 shutdown during which “people were killed” in Colorado from flooding and shuttered federal agencies could not help local emergency workers.
Moments earlier, Cruz accused Democrats of blocking a separate, doomed bill to pay US Coast Guard personnel during this shutdown to score political points, adding later.
“Just because you hate somebody doesn’t mean you should shut the government down,” he added later.
Thursday’s votes came after US Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with Republican senators, who told him that they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said.
Republican Senator Roy Blunt said that their message to Pence was: “Find a way forward.”
In an embarrassment to Trump, the Democratic proposal got two more votes than the Republican plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53 to 47.
Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including freshman Senator Mitt Romney, who has periodically clashed with Trump.
The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopening the government through September and giving Trump the US$5.7 billion he has demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he 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.
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