After another round of finger-pointing and passing a series of bills to nowhere, the U.S. Congress on Thursday had as much to show for its week of work as the federal workers caught in the middle of their bickering and gamesmanship.
Nothing. With federal workers bracing to miss their second paycheck, members of Congress and the White House appeared to be back to the drawing board after spending two days moving a set of bills that everyone involved knew would fail when they came to a vote.
Whether it was a stunt or an attempt to show the president that his proposal was a non-starter, the exercise brought the lawmakers no closer to a deal to open up the agencies that have been shuttered for going on 35 days.
It was Groundhog Day in Washington, only this time with actual consequences.
The Republican bill, which included $5.7 billion for a wall on the southern border, new restrictions to legal immigration in addition to temporary protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, failed 50-47. The Democratic-backed bill, which was an extension of current funding levels from last year until Feb 8, along with some disaster funding, failed 52-44.
Both measures needed 60 votes to move forward.
Within an hour of the failure of the dueling bills, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was floating another idea around the Capitol: to fund the government for three weeks with a down-payment for the wall.
President Trump gave it his support, telling reporters at the White House, “One of the ideas suggested is they open it, they pay sort of a pro-rated down payment for the wall, which I think people will agree, that you need, you need the wall.” But as quickly as the proposal gained some steam, it was shot down. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called the “pro-rated” proposal “unreasonable” noting that she doubted even the president had given the idea much thought.
“I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about. Do you?” she said, according to PBS.
And with that, the week was set to end as it began, with Congress having produced an immense amount of activity with zero actual result.
Republicans and Democrats had spent days taking shots at each other, but only when they weren’t talking past each other—each side imploring the other to “take yes for an answer.” Charges of “hostage-taking” and “playing politics” where bandied about. Talk of “walls” had turned into discussions of “barriers” and then back to walls again.
And that was just at the Capitol. Down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump and his team had left off exactly where they started, not just for this week, but on the entire shutdown standoff: losing public opinion, but unable and unwilling to “cave.”
On Wednesday, during a private meeting of conservative allies and activists at the White House, Trump had told attendees he had no intention of going wobbly on the wall, especially not when he had heavy hitters in right-wing media behind him. The president said talk radio star Rush Limbaugh had personally implored him not to bend to Democratic pressure, according to Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, who attended the gathering.
Another source at the meeting said they sensed palpable frustration coming from the president that he couldn’t get “Nancy”— as he calls the speaker—to do what he wanted. “Another day in paradise,” Trump joked, regarding the ongoing impasse, according to Krikorian. By Thursday, two White House officials told The Daily Beast they were “stuck,” as one bluntly assessed.
On the Hill, the absence of progress had given way to agitation. A group of mayors whose cities were suffering from the shutdown, held a press conference to bemoan their plight. “These stories, selling blood plasma to get gas money, families in my district—we have a TSA worker from Peoria, Illinois who is married to a prison worker in Pekin, Illinois,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), who appeared alongside them. “They have three kids... they don’t know what to do.”
There was also political theater.
Early Thursday afternoon, when the Senate vote was scheduled to vote, a group of about two dozen House Democrats marched across the Capitol and onto the Senate floor to put “pressure” on their colleagues to vote for the Democratic-backed proposal. Once on the floor, they were ushered behind a mahogany barrier and spent the vote socializing with Senate Democrats.
After both measures failed, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he had been summoned to McConnell’s office on the second floor of the Capitol to discuss next steps.
As they spoke, a feeling of purgatory began to set in among lawmakers.
“We don’t know if it’s the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told reporters after the bills everyone knew would fail, failed.
Still, some senators held out hope that the failure to move legislation forward was, in fact, an act of progress in itself.
“I think everybody’s under more pressure and that’s a good thing, they ought to be under pressure,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said. “I think the positions have moved from ‘wall no wall’ to ‘still wall, no wall’ but there’s more consensus that we need to get government back open.”
Meanwhile, on the House side of the Capitol, Democrats discussed a plan to introduce a new proposal on Friday morning to fund the Department of Homeland Security. While Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) indicated that the proposal would “meet or exceed” the president’s request for $5.7 billion for border security— though without any funds for the wall—Pelosi denied it was a counteroffensive. Her side, she assured everyone, had no plans of budging.
“We are doing what we have been doing all along,” she said told reporters. “We have been working on our congressional responsibility to write bills, appropriations bills, to keep government open.”