With just hours to spare until the government ran out of money at midnight Friday, Chuck Schumer made Mitch McConnell an offer. Pass a bill to buy 24 more hours to avert a shutdown and work out a budget deal that would also protect some immigrants at risk of being deported, Schumer said, according to senators and aides briefed on the talks.
Republicans had expected they would have to concede something to the Senate Democratic leader to avoid a shutdown. At that moment, they would have accepted a three-week deal, a week shorter than the plan the House had approved a day earlier, according to Republican officials.
But McConnell scoffed at his counterpart’s proposal.
“Nonsense,” McConnell replied, according to a GOP senator briefed on the conversation and confirmed by aides.
The rejection was the final blow that sent the government on course for the first shutdown since 2013. The stage was set a week earlier with President Donald Trump’s move to squash a bipartisan immigration deal — and Democrats’ retort that Dreamers must be taken care of as a condition to funding the government.
This account of the final hours leading up to the shutdown is based on interviews with than a dozen lawmakers, aides and administration officials. The stalemate, coming one year to the day after Trump’s inauguration, was the culmination of bad blood between Democrats and the Republican Congress and president that’s been building since he took office.
Though the House was able to pass a four-week spending bill with money for children’s health care on Thursday night, the Senate, with its supermajority voting requirement, doomed the bill and Congress careened past the midnight deadline. Negotiations during the final hours came in fits and starts, with a few bursts of enthusiasm but mostly resignation: Schumer and Trump chatted over cheeseburgers, and a bipartisan group held a last-ditch session Friday night.
Schumer and McConnell spoke privately on the Senate floor multiple times minutes before midnight, and Democrats tossed out a proposal that would have had government funding expire hours after Trump’s State of the Union. But by that point, both sides were too dug in to avoid a funding lapse, however brief it may be.
McConnell preferred House Speaker Paul Ryan’s House bill and believed the GOP would have the political high ground if Democrats allowed a shutdown while opposing children’s health care. Congressional Democrats wanted to hold firm on Dreamers, calling the cause a core value believing the GOP would never take them seriously if they didn’t.
Late in the day, Trump returned his hard-line immigration stances in a talk with Schumer, after the two had nearly reached an agreement earlier at the White House. After the clock struck midnight, Schumer blamed Trump explicitly and lamented: “I thought we had a deal.”
The standoff surprised even veterans of partisan warfare on Capitol Hill.
“We always enjoy looking over the cliff. But seldom do we jump,” mused Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
The PR war began in the run-up to the funding deadline, and escalated immediately after. Trump and Republicans are branding it the “Schumer shutdown.” Schumer called it the “Trump shutdown” on the Senate floor, to audible guffaws from several Republicans senators.
Despite the finger-pointing, Democrats said Schumer and Trump were actually quite close to a deal. But they said McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wouldn’t allow a funding extension of a few days to get them across the finish line.
“There’s no willingness on the other side of aisle to provide an extension that would allow us to get to an agreement,” sighed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
The president called Schumer on Friday morning and invited him to the White House to craft the broad contours of a deal on government funding and immigration. Schumer offered to increase defense spending levels and provide money for border security. The Democratic leader believed he went even further toward Trump’s position on borders than the immigration legislation crafted by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), according to a person briefed on the meeting.
Schumer left thinking a few days more of government funding would give him and Trump enough time to clinch an agreement. But Trump called Schumer twice after the lunch with second thoughts, asking for a longer funding bill and disparaging other immigration provisions, the person said.
It turned out that GOP leaders had Trump’s ear at least as much as Schumer did. According to multiple congressional and White House sources, Trump also told Schumer he needed to work out an agreement with McConnell and Ryan. That killed any hopes among Democrats that Schumer could persuade Trump to make concessions on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Still, as Schumer and Trump met, Republicans on the Hill worried that the two New Yorkers would again betray GOP leaders, as they did in the fall when they cut a deal on the debt ceiling and government funding. GOP leaders, in fact, were not informed of the meeting until right before it happened.
But White House Chief of Staff John Kelly phoned Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) right after the meeting. His message: There would be no Trump-Schumer deal.
“He 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 said. “Sounds like Gen. Kelly had it under control.”
The impasse was well underway by then. House GOP leaders were eager to ramp up pressure on Democrats to fold. They debated during their daily morning leadership meeting whether or not to adjourn the House for a week-long recess and send lawmakers home, giving Democrats a take-it-or-leave-it option to pass their measure or allow the government to shutter.
Ultimately, Ryan’s team decided to keep members in town in case they had to vote on another spending plan. But Senate Democrats stayed united throughout the day, culminating in a chest-thumping caucus meeting that hardened their opposition to the GOP’s plans.
Republicans were sticking together, too. White House staff pumped up the president before the meeting with Schumer, encouraging the man who fancies himself the ultimate deal-maker to suffocate his penchant for striking a bargain right away, GOP officials said.
Party leaders — convinced that Democrats would either cave or take the blame for a shutdown — decided early Friday morning that they were going to hold the line against Schumer and Pelosi. The Senate leader spoke with Trump by phone, updating the president on the GOP negotiating stance and intention not to budge. Ryan and McConnell then huddled in the Capitol and agreed not to seriously entertain offers from Democrats that diverged from the House-passed month-long spending plan.
“They agreed to stay unified and stick to the plan, which is that the House acted and Senate Democrats needed to vote on it,” said one source familiar with their conversation.
That didn’t stop some lawmakers from trying to strike a compromise. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) shopped a middle ground proposal with leaders and rank-and-file. He entered McConnell’s office around 7 p.m., a half-hour later walked into Schumer’s suite, and then went back to McConnell’s at 7:45 p.m. While Graham insisted he just went to the Democratic leader’s office for something to eat, aides said he was also pitching a two- or three-week spending bill to get out of the mess.
“Get out of my way,” Graham told reporters as he strode around the Capitol. Later he spent more than 15 minutes with Schumer and numerous other senators from both parties who had been working feverishly on a bipartisan immigration deal.
The result, according to senators: McConnell would agree to hold a vote on the floor on the bipartisan plan led by Graham and Durbin — and perhaps on a dueling immigration proposal as well — in the coming days. But Democrats could not lock down their chief demand, which was to attach that immigration deal to a must-pass spending measure.
“That’s something that the majority leader didn’t feel he could do,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was a part of those conversations. “Can’t bind the House that way.”
As the day wore on toward the midnight deadline, both sides braced for a public backlash, with no real clue which side would beat the brunt.
“They’re going to blame all of us,” one Democratic senator said of voters. Still, the lawmaker added that he agreed with Schumer’s strategy and that Democrats would not let McConnell “jam” them.
Trump, too, was waiting for voters to point the finger at him. After all, with universal name ID and a massive megaphone, the president wouldn’t be able to escape culpability.
“It’s Trump — they’re going to blame me no matter what,” the president told aides on Friday.