There was a clear message from Senate Republicans to President Donald Trump in the two failed votes Thursday aimed at ending the 34-day-and-counting government shutdown: We need to re-open the government. Like, now.
Yes, both votes – one on Trump’s proposal to temporarily extend DACA provisions in exchange for $5.7 billion for building the border wall, the other a Democratic proposal to simply re-open the government for a brief period to negotiate on border funding – failed to get the 60 votes they needed to advance to a final vote.
But not all failures are equal. The Trump-GOP plan got a total of 50 votes, while the Democratic plan got 52 votes. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted on Twitter: “The Democrats’ plan got 2 more votes, even though they have 6 fewer senators.”
Which is the key point. Only one Democrat – West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – voted for the GOP proposal. Six Republicans crossed party lines to support the Democratic plan: Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Johnny Isakson (Georgia), Cory Gardner (Colorado) and Mitt Romney (Utah).
Those six senators openly defied the Republican President of the United States despite the fact – and this is important – they knew that the Democratic bill wasn’t going to get 60 votes. (There was never any illusion on Capitol Hill that either of these bills would pass.) These votes are rightly understood as message-sending by this bloc of a half dozen Republicans. They wanted to make clear to Trump, and to a lesser extent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that the time to end the shutdown is here.
“I voted both times to open the government,” Romney said after the vote. “I’ll continue to vote to open our government and get people back to work.” Alexander expressed a similar sentiment:
“I voted twice today to open the government because it should never have been shut down. It is always wrong for either side to use shutting down the government as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations – it should be as off-limits as chemical weapons are to warfare.”
It wasn’t just the number of Republican senators who chose to publicly oppose Trump either. It was who they were.
Collins and Gardner are both up for re-election in 2020, and are major targets for Democrats. That they voted for the Democratic proposal is a very clear signal to Trump and McConnell that simply keeping the government closed until Democrats give Trump $5 billion for the wall isn’t politically tenable. That Republicans hold a losing hand here, and the time has come to fold.
The votes for the Democratic plan by Alexander and Romney send a different but still very important signal. Both are pillars of the Republican establishment who have been at this for a very long time. (Both men have served as governors and ran for president twice unsuccessfully before serving in the Senate.) Their votes are meant to signal to Trump that none of this is good for the GOP brand in the near-, medium- or long-term – and that if he doesn’t do something about it, they just might.
It’s no accident that after both bills failed, McConnell asked to meet with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York). Of course McConnell knew neither proposal would succeed and, because he is McConnell, likely knew that six GOPers would go against Trump and vote for the Democratic proposal. What the post-vote meeting was about was, again, signal-sending to this White House. And that signal was unmistakable: It’s time to talk. And time to deal.
Now the question is whether Trump was listening – or even cares. The initial reaction out of the White House was somewhat non-committal; said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders:
“Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Chuck Schumer are meeting now to see whether or not they can work out of the deadlock. As was made clear to Sen. Lindsay Graham, the three-week CR would only work if there is a large down payment on the wall.”
Is Trump ready to deal? That depends on how he defines “large down payment.” But what is obvious now is this: Senate Republicans – or at least something nearing a critical bloc of them – have had enough of this shutdown.