As the partial government shutdown enters its 20th day, things are getting heated in the Senate.
Senate Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, asked for a request for unanimous consent — agreement from all 100 senators — to vote on bills to reopen the government on Thursday, only for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to deny it.
The aim of asking for unanimous consent is to bring up these bills for a vote faster, dispensing with regular procedural votes that take time. But as the leader of the Senate, McConnell has the final say on granting the request. And he said no.
“The last thing we need to do right now is to trade pointless show votes across the aisle,” McConnell said during a floor speech, saying Schumer had agreed with him on that point last month. “We agreed we wouldn’t waste the Senate’s time on show votes related to government funding until a global agreement was reached that could pass the House, pass the Senate, and which the president would sign. ... That’s how you make a law.”
Even if he had allowed a motion for unanimous consent, it’s unlikely all Republican senators would have agreed. But Democrats wanted to put McConnell on the spot in publicly denying their request to take up funding bills.
Senate Democrats pushed for two of these requests Thursday on bills the Democratic-controlled House has voted on or is taking up later this week. The first is a package of six bills to get defunded departments besides the Department of Homeland Security up and running. The second is to reopen the government — with funding at existing levels for one month — while immigration negotiations continue.
McConnell said no, pointing out Trump has already pledged to veto such bills. The majority leader also seemed fixated on some Democrats’ plan to block other bills until he brings a funding bill to the floor, a point he kept returning to.
“Senate Democrats should stop blocking the Senate from taking up other, urgent matters,” McConnell said. “In previous government shutdowns, the Senate has done business. The Senate shouldn’t be shut down.”
Cardin, a Democratic senator from a state that is home to about 147,000 federal workers, hit back.
“This is not a showboat issue with 800,000 federal workers being denied,” Cardin said, his voice rising. “The last time I checked we were a coequal branch of government, we should act like a coequal branch of government. It’s outrageous the government is closed. People’s lives are being affected every minute.”
Republicans and Democrats seem dug in. Is this shutdown ever going to end?
Cardin and McConnell’s back and forth on Thursday was evidence of two sides still seemingly at loggerheads — all while hundreds of thousands of government employees from affected agencies are set to miss their first paychecks at the end of the week.
Just a day earlier, another meeting between Trump and House and Senate Democratic leaders ended badly, with Trump storming out of the meeting after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi again denied him wall money.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan and Li Zhou write, Senate Republicans are in a unique position to do something about this crisis.
Whether it does could ultimately depend on Senate Republicans, who have broadly sought to sidestep the conflict over the shutdown despite being the group who could end it.
As the shutdown continues to drag on, and neither Trump nor the Democrats give any indication of caving, the focus is increasingly on GOP members of the upper chamber, who overwhelmingly passed a spending bill without wall money in December and have the ability to stop this impasse if they want to.
“Republicans and Democrats will have to agree — not just one party,” said a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when asked about Senate Republicans’ ability to end a shutdown. McConnell has repeatedly put the onus on Democrats and Trump throughout shutdown talks, but as Slate’s William Saletan writes, that approach obscures the power of the Senate Republican majority to back Democrats’ existing spending bills and put pressure on the president.
McConnell is saying he won’t bring anything to the floor until he knows Trump will sign it. Senate Democrats are increasingly criticizing this, essentially asking McConnell to call Trump’s bluff.
The funding bills they want to vote on are nearly identical to the ones the Senate passed near unanimously before the holidays. In theory, Congress could override the president’s veto on a spending bill. That’s exactly what Cardin was asking for on Thursday.
“That’s been passed near unanimously by this body,” Cardin said, referring to the spending bills. “The last time I checked the Constitution, that’s enough for a veto override.”
But it’s clear McConnell doesn’t plan to take the drastic step of clashing so publicly with the president. Even though there are some cracks within his party, with moderate Republicans urging him to take action, McConnell is ultimately the one who decides.