WASHINGTON— Senate Democrats relented to heavy pressure and joined Republicans in ending a three-day federal shutdown Monday, winning little more than a promise from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to conduct an immigration debate in coming weeks.
The retreat, after Republicans launched a weekend barrage accusing Democrats of putting the concerns of undocumented immigrants ahead of US troops and federal employees, ended the divisive episode as furloughs and agency closures began to take effect on the shutdown’s first business day.
The Senate passed a bill to fund the government for two-and-a-half more weeks, until Feb. 8, giving lawmakers more time to decide the fate of nearly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children. If that issue isn’t resolved quickly, Democrats could force another shutdown when this bill’s funding runs out next month.
President Trump signed the bill Monday evening.
The Democratic backpedaling angered liberals and immigration activists, who argued that Senate Democrats should have held out for a stronger agreement to protect young immigrants before opening the government back up. Sixteen Democrats — including both Massachusetts senators and a slew of 2020 presidential hopefuls — and two Republicans voted against moving forward on the short-term funding bill.
The House passed the bill later Monday, 266 to 150, with most Republicans and 45 Democrats — including Stephen Lynch of South Boston and William Keating of Bourne — backing it. President Trump was expected to sign it, restarting the federal government that partly shut down at midnight Friday.
Republicans were trying not to gloat after the Democrats’ capitulation but making a poor show of it.
“Sure, they got the majority leader to take up immigration in February. He was gonna do that anyway,” Senator John Cornyn, the number two Republican, said on the Senate floor.
Asked by reporters in a hallway if he believed Democrats “caved,” Cornyn said, “I’m trying my best to be magnanimous.”
At the White House, the administration claimed credit, despite the widely held view, even among some Republicans, that Trump’s shifting stances and sideline role over the weekend showed him to be ineffective.
“What the president did clearly worked,’’ spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared in the White House briefing room.
Minority leader Chuck Schumer, who said Saturday the president is like Jell-O to negotiate with, blasted Trump from the Senate floor Monday for taking a back seat over the weekend.
“The great deal-making president sat on the sidelines,” Schumer said.
Over the weekend, Trump and Republican leaders stonewalled Democrats, saying they would not negotiate immigration issues with them until they voted to open the government. But a bipartisan group of about 20 senators, led by GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine, started talks to find a way to end the shutdown on Saturday.
‘The White House needs to be partof it.’
Democrats in red states seeking a way out of the politically risky shutdown and more moderate Republican members met Monday morning in Collins’s office over bagels and coffee and talked out a compromise, passing around a “talking stick” brought by Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp to take turns venting their concerns.
Democrats worried out loud that McConnell wouldn’t honor his word to bring up an immigration bill, but Collins and other Republicans told them they believed he would and that they would keep the pressure up.
“My personal hope is we’ll end up with a path toward citizenship for the Dreamers and stronger border security,” Collins said.
Members of the group say they hope they can hash out an agreement on a monthslong spending deal that lifts caps on defense and domestic spending, provides more money for disaster relief and opioid addiction, and addresses the plight of young immigrants bought to the country as children — all in in the next 16 days.
Trump met Monday with Republican senators in the White House on immigration, then spoke with Democratic Senators Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, suggesting he wants to play a leading role in the compromise going forward.
But McConnell promised to begin debate on immigration next month without saying Trump has to approve the plan first. That means the president, who blew up bipartisan negotiations with racially charged comments on immigrants earlier this month, could find himself left out by a bipartisan group of senators in the center who are now forming their own immigration plan.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said Trump, after earlier rejecting the compromise to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, needs to provide a clear statement on what he wants in a deal.
In exchange for offering a path for DACA “Dreamers’’ to become citizens, Trump has previously demanded funding for a border wall or fence, which many Democrats are ready to accept. But he more recently has pushed proposals to cut legal immigration in half and punish “sanctuary’’ cities, which Democrats and some Republicans will not accept. It’s also unclear if the president would sign a bill protecting a wider group of 2.1 million Dreamers or only the 800,000 currently covered by DACA.
“The White House needs to be part of it,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said. “But if they can’t get to a yes on the proposal, then the Senate will get to yes.”
Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona and Trump critic who has been negotiating an immigration deal, said the best outcome would be for the White House to sign off on a deal before the Senate passes it. But he doesn’t think that’s feasible anymore, given the president’s ever-shifting positions.
Plan B is for the Senate to pass its own proposal without Trump’s input and hope the president likes it.
A lack of trust is what motivated at least some of the Democrats who rejected the three-week spending deal.
“I remain deeply skeptical of any short-term budget agreement that relies on the good faith commitment of President Donald Trump,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who voted against the spending bill.
Cutting the president out of negotiations in the next three weeks could hurt any immigration bill’s chances in the more conservative House, where members of the Freedom Caucus take many of their cues from Trump.
“Maybe the president will come out from under his desk and engage, because he really is the only one who could convince House Republicans to accept a bipartisan bill,” said Frank Sharry, Washington director of the proimmigration group America’s Voice.
The president has said he wants lawmakers to use “heart” when designing an immigration bill. In September, he called DACA recipients “good, educated, and accomplished young people who have jobs,” questioning why anyone would want to deport them.
But Trump has also promised immigration hard-liners within the Republican Party that he won’t back an immigration proposal that doesn’t have their support.
“The president has consistently said that he wants to make sure Tom Cotton and I can embrace a deal that he cuts and I trust him at his word,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said over the weekend. Meadows said he believes any immigration bill should start in the House.
Meadows and Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, have said any bill should eliminate US citizens’ ability to sponsor relatives for citizenship except for minor children and spouses.
“Anybody who thinks this debate is going to just be limited to amnesty for our DACA immigrants, they’ve been smoking some of that medicinal marijuana,” said Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana.Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.