Bipartisan ‘talking stick’ session? Not in this shutdown.

Why We Wrote This

Just a year ago, Sen. Susan Collins was able to break a shutdown logjam by gathering senators in her corner office to hash out a bipartisan solution. Here's why that bridge-building technique is not working now.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska speaks to reporters as she walks into the office of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2019.

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Changed political dynamics in Washington help explain why the Senate’s traditional way of cutting through intractable problems – using bipartisan “gangs” of senators to find consensus – has not been a workable model for ending this government shutdown. For one thing, the funding impasse isn’t really between the two parties in Congress. In fact, just before Christmas, Congress had worked out an agreement to temporarily fund the government, but that deal was upended by the president. Rather, the fight is between Democrats – newly empowered by their majority in the House – and President Trump. And both sides are dug in to a degree that astonishes even veteran lawmakers, with Mr. Trump walking out of negotiations on Wednesday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said no to a wall. Nor does there seem to be a path to thread the border-security/immigration-reform needle – not only because of the difficulty of the issue politically, but also because of a trust deficit with the president that has worsened considerably in the past year. “It won’t work,” says Sen. Angus King (Ind.) of Maine. “Nobody can negotiate with this president. We learned that. I’m done.”

Nearly one year ago, more than 20 Democratic and Republican senators were sequestered in the corner office of GOP Sen. Susan Collins, passing around a beaded African “talking stick,” as they worked earnestly toward some kind of deal to end the government shutdown. Eventually, they found a way to break the deadlock. After three days, the government reopened. 

In 2013, Senator Collins led a similar effort that helped end a 16-day shutdown.

But tellingly, there are no bipartisan “talking stick” meetings going on in the Maine senator’s office these days. Absent a deal, it seems increasingly likely that President Trump will try to fund a border wall by declaring a national emergency – triggering a legal challenge but potentially clearing the way for the government to reopen.

“If we don’t make a deal, I would say it would be very surprising to me that I would not declare a national emergency and just fund it through the various mechanisms,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he headed to Texas to visit the border on Thursday.

Changed political dynamics in Washington help explain why one of the Senate’s traditional ways of cutting through seemingly intractable problems – relying on bipartisan “gangs” of senators to find consensus – is not a workable model at the moment.

To begin with, the heart of the funding impasse isn’t really between the two parties in Congress, and therefore not a matter of trying to find a bridge between lawmakers or chambers. In fact, just before Christmas, Congress had agreed on a bipartisan way to temporarily fund the government. But that deal was upended by the president after he was criticized by some conservative media figures over a lack of funding for the wall.

Rather, the fight is between Democrats – newly empowered by their majority in the House – and Trump. And both sides are dug in to a degree that astonishes even veteran lawmakers, with the president walking out of White House negotiations on Wednesday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said no to a wall.

Democrats in both chambers are in lockstep with their leaders, who want to reopen the government before border security negotiations can begin. And while some Republicans in the House and the Senate have expressed a similar position, the president’s party so far is largely sticking with him. 

Neither does there seem to be a path to thread the border-security/immigration-reform needle, not only because of the difficulty of the issue politically, but also because of a trust deficit with the president that has worsened considerably in the last year.

“It won’t work,” says Sen. Angus King (Ind.) of Maine, when asked about the possibility of new bipartisan “talking stick” meetings. “Nobody can negotiate with this president. We learned that. I’m done.”

Senator King, who caucuses with the Democrats, pointed to several weeks of negotiations with Republicans that grew out of last year’s meetings in Collins’s office. From that emerged a bipartisan bill pairing $25 billion for border security (including for physical barriers) with a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children. Its co-authors were King and Sen. Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota.

The night before the vote, says King, their bill had more than 60 votes – enough to beat a filibuster – but “the White House torpedoed it and it melted away.”

Additionally, he complains of a lack of specificity of the president’s wall plans – the cost, location, and length. “We’re arguing about a kind of mythic animal that nobody knows what it is.” Republicans, meanwhile, wonder how Democrats can be against a wall of steel slats when just that kind of construction was built during the Obama administration.

Still, a small group of GOP senators – including Collins, as well as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – met in South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office to try to find a path forward after Wednesday’s Oval Office breakdown. They were joined by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. No Democrats were invited.

The senators searched for a solution that would fund the president’s wall, while still offering something for Democrats. What that might be, however, was unclear – particularly since the White House has said it will do nothing on Dreamers until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue. 

“We’re kind of stuck,” Senator Graham admitted, as he ducked into an elevator Thursday afternoon as the effort faltered.

And so the pressure continues to build for the president to declare a national emergency on the border. Critics say it would be an extraordinary flex of executive muscles and will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee has already voiced strong objections to the idea of reapportioning billions from the Defense Department to build the wall.

But increasingly, this option is being considered as an “off-ramp” that could save face for both sides, with the president showing he tried his best and Democrats saying they did not cave. The presumption is that with the wall issue sidelined, the government could then be reopened.

“My gut tells me he’s going to do the national emergency,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia told reporters Thursday. “It’s the only way out.”

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