The 24 Hours That Led to the Shutdown


The twenty-four hours leading up to the government shutdown were marked by frantic negotiations and calls for party unity on both sides of the aisle.  Each side believed that if they held the line, the other party would take more blame for the shutdown.

The House passed a four-week funding extension that kept the government open until February 16, Thursday night.  That bill included funding for the popular children’s healthcare program CHIP, but didn’t include a solution for the DACA program.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell preferred that bill and believed Republicans would have the higher ground politically if Democrats opposed children’s health insurance and shut the government down over it.

But Democrats wanted a solution on DACA.  They view the issue as a core value for the party, and believe that if they gave in on the issue this time, the GOP would not take them seriously on it again.

Early on Friday, President Trump called Democratic Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer and invited him to the White House to talk about the broad parameters of a potential deal, over lunch.  Schumer reportedly offered an increase in defense spending and funding for border security.  Schumer left the meeting thinking it might be possible to fund the government for a few short days, giving the president enough time to finalize a deal with Republicans.

But the president called Sen. Schumer twice after the meeting criticizing the deal.  GOP leaders were afraid that Schumer and Trump, meeting privately, might come up with a deal that would leave them on the outside looking in.  But those fears were assuaged when Chief of Staff John Kelly called Senate Republican number two, John Cornyn, right after Schumer left and told him there was no Trump-Schumer deal made.  “Sounds like Gen. Kelly had it under control,” Cornyn said.

The president also reportedly told Schumer that he needed to go back to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to get a deal.  “[Kelly] told me that the president told Schumer to come back and talk to Ryan and McConnell. [Trump] wasn’t going to get in the middle of it,” Cornyn added.

That left Republicans emboldened.  They ramped up pressure on Democrats to cave.  The GOP debated whether to send their members home for a week-long recess, giving Democrats a take-it-or-leave-it option on their bill.  They opted instead to keep their members in town just in case they had to vote on another option.

But they were sticking together. White House staff convinced the president to resist his deal-making instincts, and not make a deal with Schumer, at least, not right away.  GOP leaders, believing that Democrats would either cave or take the blame for a shutdown, decided that they were not going to seriously entertain any offers other than the month-long spending extension the House passed.

But Democrats decided that they too were going to remain united.  At a caucus meeting, late in the day on Friday, they decided they were going to remain hardened in their opposition to the GOP’s plans.  That didn’t stop some Senators from attempting to find a last-minute deal, however.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, part of the bipartisan “gang of six” that have been pushing hard for an immigration compromise, shuttled back and forth between McConnell’s and Schumer’s offices for a about an hour starting at 7 p.m.  “Get out my way,” he told reporters as he rushed around.  The result of his rushing about was a proposal in which McConnell would agree to hold a vote on the bipartisan plan put forth by Graham and Durbin in the coming days.

But Democrats couldn’t get a key concession: attaching an immigration vote to a must-pass spending bill.  McConnell felt he would be jamming the House if he agreed to that provision.  “That’s something that the majority leader didn’t feel he could do,” Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said.  “Can’t bind the House that way.”  Indeed, that is something Republicans in the House had been afraid of all week.

By that time, a shutdown, however brief, was all but certain, with each side believing the other would get just a little more blame for it than their own.  In the end, the House bill that would have kept the government open until February 16, went down in defeat by a vote of 50-49 in the Senate, just after midnight this morning.  The vote was mainly along party lines, with five Democrats voting for the bill and five Republicans voting against.


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