Little progress seen on shutdown as talks continue

Bipartisan 'gang' hopes to pull together proposal

By PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN
Mark Reinstein/Corbis Historical/Getty Images via CNN

US Capitol

(CNN) - A bipartisan Senate "gang" entered Wednesday hoping to pull together a proposal that could garner the votes (and presidential support) to re-open the government, while the White House will take a second swing at convincing rank-and-file Democrats to peel away from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But these actions won't lead to an outcome, lawmakers and aides say, meaning day 26 of the government shutdown will soon turn to day 27 -- and beyond.

Bottom line

Meetings aren't nothing -- people talking is better than people not talking. But aides say Democratic leaders and President Donald Trump haven't spoken in nearly a week -- which means everything remains frozen for the time being.

What to watch on Wednesday

  • House "Problem Solvers Caucus" to meet at the White House at 11:30 a.m. ET.

  • Potential meeting of Senate "gang" attempting to find long-shot path out of shutdown.

  • The House will vote on another Democratic proposal to re-open the government -- this one a $12 billion disaster relief package that includes money to fund shuttered agencies at their current levels through February 8.

For those tracking these things

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday he hadn't spoken to the President since their last meeting at the White House. When the President, having been told Democrats wouldn't agree to border wall funding even if he re-opened the government for 30 days, said "bye bye" and walked out of the meeting.

About the "veto proof" idea

Democrats have repeatedly pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to shed the idea the President has to sign off on anything before he'll put it on the floor. The theory: the Senate unanimously passed a short-term funding measure in December (that the President then rejected) and could muster a veto-proof two-thirds majority if McConnell would put something on the floor. Or, in the words of Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland: "The issue here is the Senate really does need to do its job as a separate and co-equal branch of government."

McConnell was asked if he was willing to pursue that on Tuesday. This was his response:

"In a situation like this, where the President, in my view, is in the right place, trying to get the right outcome as all of us have expressed with regard to border security, of course not."

Translation: No, McConnell will not be doing that anytime soon.

The why behind McConnell's position

I've laid this out a few times, but the rationale here is important to understand, with the caveat that Democrats reject it entirely.

McConnell's position is driven by multiple factors, according to several senators and advisers I've spoken with over the last few days who have described their view of what's going on.

First and foremost, he is reflecting his conference and to some degree, protecting them from a tough vote. While there are a small handful of Republicans pushing for an immediate exit from the shutdown, a large majority are firmly behind the President on this, aides say.

Trump's support isn't just crucial to get a signature on any bill that's passed, it's crucial politically for many rank-and-file members to support it as well. In December, they were under the impression they had that support. So the short-term bill went through. Now, they explicitly do not have that support -- and given that Republican support for a border wall has only ticked up in recent polls, crossing the President on a signature issue that is very popular in the party is a bridge too far for most Republicans not in tough 2020 re-election battles (and that's only three or four senators at this point.)

A second factor is the issue -- and the fight with it -- isn't going away, so there's a sense that if it has to play out, might as well do it now. Democrats say the battle can continue when federal workers are no longer missing paychecks, but the calculation, essentially, is that if anything else is going to be dealt with this Congress, this fight needs to be resolved first. So until it is, McConnell has no plans on trying to force a short-term resolution that will only lead the players back to the same place in a month.

Reiterated caveat

Democrats think the above is a cop out -- particularly in the face of the people affected by the shutdown. But it's also the reality of the moment. If rank-and-file GOPers start to agitate for action in mass, McConnell will shift course as well. But that's not happening right now.

A key question as the shutdown drags on

What if the usual triggers don't mean anything this time around? The idea being that historically, it's cratering poll numbers and the pain of the shutdown that generally leads to its resolution. But what happens when one of the players doesn't seem affected by polls that show him losing nationally by a large margin, and seems generally ambivalent to the hardships of those hit by the shutdown on the grounds that it's all worth it for border security?

I asked Schumer if he was concerned about that possibility with Trump on Tuesday. This was his response:

"I think that the President likes to look at just his base, but if you look at the polling, he's even beginning to lose some pieces of his base. Not on the wall, but on shutting down the government for the wall. And I think it's certainly affecting our Republican colleagues in the Senate."

One thing GOP aides are starting to point to

Many of the traditional triggers to a deal haven't forced talks yet, but Republicans are starting to note that if the broader economy starts taking a hit -- and markets respond in-kind -- it may be difficult for a President so focused on those metrics to ignore. Markets have hardly panicked at the thought of a shutdown of 25% of the federal government. But the longer it goes, there are both real economic effects and a decent likelihood that a debt ceiling deadline, coming up in a few months, will start to get factored in.

Let's try this again

The White House swung and missed in its first effort to deploy its "peel moderate Democrats away from Pelosi" strategy on Tuesday when said moderate Democrats declined the lunch invitations to meet with the White House.

Another group of moderates -- this time the bipartisan membership of the Problem Solvers Caucus -- was invited, and is expected to attend, Wednesday. The group attempts to serve as a middle ground of sorts for both parties, which generally makes the base of each party suspect of their actions. But they're generally always willing to talk -- and that's precisely what will happen Wednesday with the President.

The most important thing to remember is this isn't a group that can make a deal -- they aren't large enough and they aren't empowered by leadership to do, well, anything. So it's a meeting. And that's about it.

Here's more on Tuesday's meeting mishap, from CNN's Ashley Killough and Kristin Wilson.

Biggest message from Democrats to rank-and-file members

If you want to attend a White House meeting, go ahead, but just make sure you're not a prop -- that's been the message from Democratic leaders to their rank and file members. Pelosi, in a private leadership meeting on Monday night, joked that it would be worthwhile for moderate lawmakers to go to "see what we're dealing with" with Trump, according to an aide. "And they'll want to make a citizen's arrest."

If there are any concerns among Democratic leadership that their rank and file will split any time soon, it's not showing.

The "gang" is still around

The latest iteration of a Senate "gang" certainly hasn't made any breakthroughs -- and many of its members are blunt about, according to one source, its "longest of long shot prospects." But it does still exist, and as we noted, they do plan to keep talking and potentially meet again Wednesday. There was a push Tuesday to craft a letter, signed by the bipartisan members of the group, pledging to get a deal done should Trump commit to re-opening the government. To this point, the letter, which some senators are wary of signing, hasn't emerged. But it is still under discussions.

It's something Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, alluded to in a conversation with CNN's Manu Raju on Tuesday night:

"I'm hoping in the next 24 hours there will emerge a group of Republicans and Democrats who will basically ask the President jointly to give us a few weeks to work on this with you and see if we can produce a result in the Senate."

Just saying

Trump has rejected the short-term funding bill in exchange for negotiations idea over, and over, and over again. ‎

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