POLITICS
01/20/2018 02:21 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2018

Shutdown Stalemate As Immigration Negotiations Break Down

We could be here for a minute.

WASHINGTON ― Hours into a government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be digging in for a long legislative standoff, with little sign that lawmakers and President Donald Trump are even talking at this point.

Republicans say they won’t negotiate on immigration until Democrats vote to reopen government. Democrats say they won’t vote to reopen government until Republicans negotiate on immigration. And as members returned to the Capitol on Saturday for emergency legislative sessions during the shutdown, the tension was on full display in both chambers.

In the House, after Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered a blistering speech blaming Democrats for the shutdown, which he called a “shakedown,” the presiding officer in the House at the time, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), refused to recognize Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a response.

That breach of decorum ― it’s customary for whoever is in the chair to recognize the minority leader if he or she wants to speak ― led to a shouting match on the House floor, which in turn led to lawmakers having to come to the chamber to, in effect, take attendance.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blamed Democrats and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a “manufactured crisis.” Schumer slammed McConnell and Republicans for governing via stopgap spending measures, for chronically delaying a compromise on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, and for crafting partisan bills without consulting Democrats and then blaming them for not going along. “In our democracy, you have to compromise if you wish to govern” Schumer said.

Even though Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democratic votes are needed in the Senate to close debate. Late Friday night, an effort to do just that went down, as the motion requiring 60 votes was rejected 50-49, with four Republicans voting no and five Democrats voting yes.

Democrats want some deal ― or at least some indication that there could be a deal ― to address the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. And there were signs of a possible compromise Friday when Schumer and Trump met at the White House for lunch.

According to a source familiar with the discussions, Schumer and Trump discussed a DACA bill in exchange for Republicans’ full defense spending request and the possibility of Trump’s full border request, which would include money for a wall. Both men said they felt like they were close to a big deal, but probably needed a bill to continue government funding for a few days as they hammered out the details.

But a few hours after Schumer left the White House, Trump called him saying he had heard Democrats were ready to support a three-week continuing resolution. According to this source, Schumer said that was the first he had heard of such a deal, and Trump told the New York Democrat to work it out with McConnell.

After some more back-and-forths between Schumer and Trump ― and Schumer and McConnell ― Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, called Schumer Friday night and said the framework of the DACA deal was too liberal. The deal was off.

Even though an agreement to extend government operations for three weeks was eventually offered, Schumer and other Senate Democrats now didn’t see a path forward for the immigration deal they were discussing only hours before. According to lawmakers, McConnell was open to voting on a deal for so-called Dreamers, but Ryan wouldn’t commit.

That left Democratic senators feeling like their best route of negotiation was to vote against the continuing resolution.

As both sides regrouped Saturday, Democrats felt Republicans ― particularly the president ― needed to come to them. And Republicans (or at least the ones in the House) decided they would not talk until Democrats voted to reopen government.

According to White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, Trump had no plans to meet with Democrats on Saturday, though he was talking with Republican leaders. Even if Trump did come to Democrats, leaders don’t even seem all that supportive of negotiating with Trump at the moment, after his chief of staff snatched away the deal they seemed so close to reaching.

Schumer said Saturday that negotiating with Trump was like “negotiating with Jello.”

“It’s impossible to negotiate with a constantly moving target,” Schumer said. “Leader McConnell has found that out. Speaker Ryan has found that out. And I have found that out.”

But there are some signs that an immigration deal could be reached. Perhaps the staunchest pro-immigrant lawmaker in Congress, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) signaled he could support funding for a wall if it meant a solution for Dreamers.

“It’s an awfully wasteful burden on the taxpayers to build a wall, but I’ve come to a conclusion that lives are more important than bricks,” Gutiérrez said Saturday. “I hope that now that they’ve heard that, they will do what they originally said was the exchange.”

Gutiérrez continued that Republicans had taken DACA recipients as “hostages” and the ransom was a wall. “And I’m saying to you, even though I feel it’s an incredibly stupid burden you’re placing on the taxpayer for something that I don’t think useful, I’m going to put that ahead,” he said.

The Democratic softening on the wall issue is a strong indication that there is an immigration deal to be had with Trump, as the president has made clear that a wall is his No. 1 immigration priority.

The problem, however, may be Republican lawmakers. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) was emphatic Saturday morning that the deal Schumer and Trump were discussing was not palatable to conservatives. 

“Talking to my Senate colleagues,” Meadows said as he exited a House GOP conference meeting, “there were a lot of promises made last night, but none that will become law.”

Republican and Democratic aides all tell HuffPost the way out of this shutdown is for leaders from both sides to sit down and hash something out. They don’t seem all that close to that moment, though.

With the government in a softer shutdown because of the weekend, the new deadline on Capitol Hill seems to be a deal by late Sunday night, before government agencies open for business on Monday morning. And a deal always could come together quickly, especially if it’s just to delay the worst effects of the shutdown by extending government funding for a bit longer.

As a senior GOP aide said Saturday afternoon, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

But until lawmakers start talking ― or just stop attacking each other ― this shutdown doesn’t seem to be ending soon.

Elise Foley contributed to this report.

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