Shutdown's Silver Lining: Senators Talk Across Party Lines

Updated on
  • Lawmakers led by moderate Collins seek solution on immigration
  • Such groups have a mixed track record in achieving results

Senator Susan Collins

Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg

Congress’s three-day government shutdown didn’t accomplish much, but one thing that emerged was a large, bipartisan group of senators who are actually talking about immigration.

The 26 senators led by moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine helped end the shutdown and now are taking on a bigger task: crafting a compromise plan to aid 690,000 young undocumented immigrants who were protected under a soon-to-end program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and help break a budget deadlock. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll succeed.

“We now have 26 people and that is a formidable number in the United States Senate. That’s a group that can make a real difference in the outcome,” Collins said in an interview on Tuesday.

With the potential for another government shutdown after Feb. 8 and a March expulsion deadline for the immigrants, known as dreamers, the senators say they have vital ingredients for success.

“We have finite time,” said one participant, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. “It helps to have a deadline.”

The White House plans to release a "legislative framework" for an immigration plan on Monday that will address securing the border, ending a diversity visa lottery, ending extended-family immigration preferences and providing a permanent solution for the young immigrants, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Wednesday.

Gang of Eight

An earlier bipartisan group, known as the Gang of Eight, helped a Democratic-led Senate draft a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 2013 that passed the chamber in a decisive 68-32 vote. Yet the measure -- which created a path to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and provided $46 billion to secure the Mexican border -- died when the House never acted.

The newest group risks a similar fate if it produces a bill that can’t pass the Republican-controlled Senate or gets bogged down in the GOP-dominated House, said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican.

“That doesn’t get them an outcome if you don’t have something that’s agreed to and the House isn’t involved,” Thune told reporters.

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma griped during the weekend shutdown that he didn’t understand by what authority this "self-appointed group of senators" was negotiating or making decisions.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said his chamber wouldn’t be bound by any decisions made in the Senate.

Political Centrists

The new Senate negotiating group spans the political spectrum and includes liberal Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and GOP Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a conservative. It’s mostly comprised, though, of centrists like Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Tim Kaine of Virginia, as well as Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Newcomer Doug Jones, the Democrat who just won a Senate seat in heavily Republican Alabama, also has a seat at the table.

The group also includes a number of Democrats up for re-election this year from states President Donald Trump won in 2016, like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Bill Nelson of Florida and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. All would benefit from a solution that helps resolve the impasse and prevents another shutdown -- or at least showcases their willingness to work with Republicans.

“It’s an alternative to the constant tribal warfare that goes on around here,” said Senator Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat in the group whose state gave 57 percent of its vote to Trump.

The group is set to continue its discussions at a meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The senators face tough obstacles. The only immigration compromise offered so far this year, by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was rejected by the president. Their plan would have provided a path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. by their parents, plus $2.7 billion for border security, reallocation of a visa lottery system, and limits on immigration preferences for dreamers’ relatives.

Offer Retracted

Republican leaders and GOP immigration hardliners turned down the plan and said the drive for compromise was set back this week when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer retracted his offer to give Trump more than the $1.6 billion he requested for a border wall this year. Republicans need a substantial, multi-year border security deal in exchange for helping the dreamers, according to Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

“If he wants a solution, that’s a step backwards,” Cornyn said of Schumer’s decision.

On Tuesday night, the president said on Twitter that "Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA."

Still, there is an opportunity after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attracted Democratic votes to end the shutdown by offering a vote on immigration legislation in coming weeks, as long as the government remains open after the Feb. 8 deadline.

Based on the track record of past Senate negotiating groups, there’s reason to question whether this one can overcome Congress’s intense partisanship.

In 2005, a Senate “Gang of 14” -- seven Democrats and seven Republicans -- teamed up to prevent a change in the rules for blocking judicial nominees. They agreed to let some nominees advance and said they would filibuster future nominees only “under extraordinary circumstances.”

Health-Care Group

Most such groups, though, haven’t packed a lot of punch.

In 2009, Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus brought together seven colleagues -- including four Republicans -- to help craft a health-care overhaul. But the Republicans left the group, and Baucus looked lonely at a press conference unveiling a bill he had hoped would reflect a broad consensus.

During protracted 2011 discussions for a debt-reduction package, a bipartisan Gang of Six proposed $3.7 trillion in budget savings over 10 years to slash the deficit, more than President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner considered in their unsuccessful talks. Eventually, across-the-board cuts occurred as part of a pared-down deal after various negotiations collapsed.

Bipartisan negotiating groups do better in the Senate than in the House, where proposals by a bipartisan, Problem Solvers Caucus with 24 members from each party generally aren’t taken seriously by GOP leaders who are more focused on retaining the support of their right wing. Caucus Chairman Tom Reed, a New York Republican, said it is still working on getting at least three-fourths of its members to agree on an immigration bill that was to be introduced last year.

The new Senate immigration group could have significant clout if its members stick together. Republicans control the Senate by only a 51-49 margin after Jones’s win in December, so such a large group could help yield a filibuster-proof majority.

70 Votes

Flake and Graham said the group aims to get 70 votes for an immigration plan. But even Graham, who also participated in the 2013 immigration group, admits he can’t say what would happen next if that happens.

"The Senate is going to lead on this issue," Graham said. "We’re not trying to tell the House what to do. We’re not making any demands of the White House. But we’re going to become the United States Senate again."

Some senators who have chosen not to participate say the inescapable fact is that GOP leaders will be calling most of the shots.

“Gangs matter in sorting out issues and ideas and trying to find a starting point, but they don’t solve all the problems,” said Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican. “The majority leader has a lot to do with the outcome.”

— With assistance by Anna Edgerton, Sahil Kapur, and John Fitzpatrick

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