A splintered Senate voted down competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 35-day partial government shutdown, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest shutdown of federal agencies.

In the first serious exchange in weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), quickly called Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to his office on Thursday, Jan. 24, to explore potential next steps for solving the stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.

The Capitol iat sunset after the Senate rejected competing Democratic and Republican proposals for ending the partial government shutdown, which is the longest in the nation's history, in Washington, Thursday, Jan. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The Capitol at sunset after the Senate rejected competing Democratic and Republican proposals for ending the partial government shutdown, which is the longest in the nation’s history, in Washington, Jan. 24, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters he’d support “a reasonable agreement.” He suggested he’d also want a “prorated down payment” for his long-sought border wall with Mexico but didn’t describe the terms. He said he has “other alternatives” for getting wall funding.

“At least we’re talking about it. That’s better than it was before,” McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began Dec. 22.

Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told reporters a “big” down payment would not be “a reasonable agreement.” Asked if she knew how much money Trump meant, Pelosi said, “I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about.”

Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats have made clear “that they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise.”

Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting 800,000 federal workers, who on Friday face a second two-week payday with no paychecks.

Thursday’s votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with GOP senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said their message to Pence was, “Find a way forward.”

The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopen the government through September and give Trump the $5.7 billion he’s requested for building segments of that wall. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.

Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. 

Flustered lawmakers said Thursday’s roll calls could be a reality check that would prod the start of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.

Thursday’s votes could “teach us that the leaders are going to have to get together and figure out how to resolve this,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader. He added, “One way or another we’ve got to get out of this. This is no win for anybody.”

Initially, partisan potshots flowed freely.

As the Senate debated the two dueling proposals, McConnell said the Democratic plan would let that party’s lawmakers “make political points and nothing else” because Trump wouldn’t sign it. He called Pelosi’s opposition “unreasonable” and said, “Senate Democrats are not obligated to go down with her ship.”

Schumer criticized the GOP plan for endorsing Trump’s proposal to keep the government closed until he gets the funding needed for the wall.

“A vote for the president’s plan is an endorsement of government by extortion,” Schumer said. “If we let him do it today, he’ll do it tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

McConnell’s engagement was viewed as a constructive sign because he has a history of helping resolve partisan standoffs. For weeks, he’d let Trump and Democrats try reaching an accord and, until Thursday, had barred any votes on legislation Trump would not sign.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., heads to the Senate floor prior to a vote on ending the partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), heads to the Senate floor prior to a vote on ending the partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 24, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out Friday. Despite their pledge not to negotiate until agencies reopened, their forthcoming proposal was essentially a counteroffer to Trump. Pelosi expressed “some optimism that things could break loose pretty soon” in a closed-door meeting with other Democrats on Wednesday evening, said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky).

The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7 billion, the same amount Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures. In a plan that the rejected Senate GOP plan mirrored, Trump on Saturday proposed to reopen government if he got his wall money. He also proposed to revamp immigration laws, including new restrictions on Central American minors seeking asylum in the United States and temporary protections for immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.

At a panel discussion held by House Democrats on the effects of the shutdown, union leaders and former Homeland Security officials said they worried about the long-term effects.

“We will be lucky to get everybody back on the job without a crisis to respond to,” said Tim Manning, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency official.

Source: The Associated Press