In the middle of deadlocked government shutdown negotiations on Capitol Hill this weekend, a group of about 17 senators from both parties went into the office of Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins and started talking.
By the end of the weekend, the so-called “Common Sense Coalition” had grown to around 30 senators, moderates from both parties who became the group driving internal negotiations to reopen the government. They are now credited with helping bring an end to the shutdown — with Collins appearing on CNN on Tuesday morning, proudly showing off the beaded “talking stick” she said helped facilitate discussions.
“It’s very helpful in controlling the discussion because as you can imagine with that many senators in a room, they all want to to talk at once. I know it shocks you to learn that,” Collins told BuzzFeed’s Emma Loop.
But bipartisanship via talking stick is also tricky — CNN also reported that over the course of the bipartisan group meeting, one Republican lawmaker “forcefully delivered” the stick across the room to a Democratic colleague — but he missed, instead hitting a shelf and chipping a glass elephant belonging to Collins.
Emboldened after paving the way for the government to reopen, this group of lawmakers now says they are going to take on immigration and a long-term spending bill. By Wednesday afternoon, the group had grown to 39 senators, according to Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL). Led by Collins and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the coalition planned to start drafting proposals for an immigration deal immediately.
Durbin: “This is going to be interesting because what was originally 32 has grown to 39 or something. I’ve never been in a group that large trying to construct something this delicate and difficult. So we’ll see.” https://t.co/c0HJBMTt4v— Alex Rogers (@arogDC) January 24, 2018
They’ll certainly have an uphill battle. The Senate has been increasingly gridlocked and partisan in 2017 and 2018. The recent vote on tax reform underscores the tense partisanship; the massive tax overhaul was the only piece of major legislation that passed the Senate this year, and it did so without a single Democratic vote. Red-state Democrats like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, considered gettable votes for tax reform, said that no Republicans even tried to include them in the effort.
While there was new optimism about bipartisanship on Monday, whether the reconvened Common Sense Coalition is able to overcome the Senate’s gaping divisions is still a very open question.
Who is in the Common Sense Coalition, and what do they want?
This is not the first government shutdown that the Common Sense Coalition helped solve. The bipartisan group made its debut in 2013 under a slightly different name, the “Common Sense Caucus.”
Both the 2013 and 2018 groups had the same leader: Sen. Collins. When conservative Senate Republicans shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act in 2013, Collins started a group of 14 senators that would eventually forge the bipartisan agreement to end the stalemate and reopen the government.
Many of those same senators came back to the fold this weekend.
“It was many of the same people in the room this time who worked last time,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) told Vox. “As we were watching this unfold on Friday, I think a number of people went to Susan Collins and said, ‘Susan, we hope you’ll work with us to convene this group again.’”
The Democrats who worked in the 2018 group included Sens. Heitkamp, Manchin, and Shaheen, as well as Chris Coons (DE), Joe Donnelly (IN), Maggie Hassan (NH), Doug Jones (AL), Tim Kaine (VA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Claire McCaskill (MO), Bill Nelson (FL), Gary Peters (MI), and Mark Warner (VA), plus Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats.
Many of these moderates have been less vocal on immigration than their liberal colleagues and are more concerned about other long-term funding priorities. The Democratic group included senators with a vested interest in making sure the government stayed open; Manchin, Heitkamp, McCaskill, and Donnelly are all red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2018, and all voted for Friday’s short-term spending bill along with Jones.
On the Republican side, bipartisan group participants included Collins and Sens. Lamar Alexander (TN), Bob Corker (TN), Jeff Flake (AZ), Cory Gardner (CO), Lindsey Graham (SC), Johnny Isakson (GA), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mike Rounds (SD).
Flake and Graham, in particular, have been key players in trying to come to a bipartisan immigration compromise. Republican senators involved echoed their Democratic colleagues, saying the talks marked a noticeable improvement in communication and tone.
“We are in a much, much different space than we were on Friday,” Murkowski told reporters on Monday. “It is a world apart. You will never hear me say that a shutdown was good. What was good is there was definitely a forcing mechanism to get members who were trying to get to yes together in one room together for long periods of time, and we started good conversation.”
This coalition has a lot of hurdles to get over if they are going to get anything done
Dysfunction and gridlock in the Senate chamber is nothing new; bills often move through the chamber at a glacial pace. But the partisanship of the past few years has been especially noticeable.
To be clear, the efforts of the bipartisan coalition this weekend did not secure much of a deal on either immigration or a long-term funding bill. The two sides reached an agreement to fund the government for just another three weeks, based on a public assurance from McConnell that he would allow open debate on an immigration bill by February 8 if no deal were reached before then.
As Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote:
In a way, the tepid deal to reopen the government Monday was a retreat for both parties back to their corners. Republicans didn’t actually yield much on DACA, other than promising to open a floor debate. Democrats didn’t get much more than Mitch McConnell’s word that they could soon move an immigration bill.
With one government shutdown curtailed after three days, the bipartisan group has a long to-do list in the coming weeks to avoid another. Senators need to work out the points of an immigration deal that will be acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. And they don’t just have the Senate to think about; they need to figure out a compromise that will also move through the House, where its path is potentially much more treacherous.
And then there’s the issue of President Donald Trump, who seems to be saying yes to anyone he meets with on an immigration deal, no matter which party they belong to. Democratic Senate leaders said Trump agreed to a bipartisan deal this weekend that his staff rejected soon after.
After the Monday vote, Trump met with two red-state Democrats: Sens. Jones of Alabama and Manchin of West Virginia. The men discussed immigration and infrastructure but didn’t get into specifics on an immigration deal, according to Jones’s press secretary Sam Coleman.
Coleman said the senators described their immigration conversation with Trump as “30,000 feet up,” but said Jones left with the impression that Trump was willing to work with Republicans and Democrats on an immigration deal.
“It wasn’t a lot of specifics,” Coleman said.
Trump also met with a group of conservative Republican senators on Monday, who are all immigration hardliners. And he didn’t exactly clarify where he stood on the issue in a Tuesday tweet, saying, “Nobody knows for sure that the Republicans & Democrats will be able to reach a deal on DACA by February 8.”
Nobody knows for sure that the Republicans & Democrats will be able to reach a deal on DACA by February 8, but everyone will be trying....with a big additional focus put on Military Strength and Border Security. The Dems have just learned that a Shutdown is not the answer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 23, 2018
It’s entirely possible this bipartisan gang will follow in the footsteps of many other failed bipartisan gangs on immigration, with no real legislative solution on the DACA program.
Though immigration is at the top of the priority list, there are many other issues that need to be dealt with in a long-term spending bill, including funding for disaster relief, the nation’s opioid crisis, pensions, and new budget caps, which put a hard upper limit on spending for defense and domestic programs. Without new budget caps, and because of a 2011 sequester law, Congress’s demand for a massive spending bill would trigger across-the-board spending cuts.
Senators in both parties said they hoped the discussions among the coalition would continue, both on the specifics of immigration reform and on a long-term spending bill. And they’re looking less toward leadership and more toward each other to make things happen.
“Where the faith is is really with our colleagues that we met with,” said Heitkamp. “When we’ve got 11 to 12 Republicans meeting with us saying they want to have a process, I think we feel like there is at least a workable group in the majority that will in fact hold the leader and that process accountable. We’re going to continue to make a commitment to each other, continue to meet, and I think that was a very positive outcome today.”