WASHINGTON -- After weeks of keeping away from the battle over how to re-open shuttered government agencies, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday suddenly got involved, hosting a private meeting with a group of Republican senators hoping to end the impasse.
Should the shutdown continue Friday -- as it now appears likely -- the lack of funding for nine Cabinet agencies and several smaller departments would tie the 23-year-old record for the longest such closure.
Throughout the morning, senators shuttled in and out of McConnell's office. Nothing was resolved, but the talks with McConnell, known as the Senate's consummate dealmaker, were a sign GOP lawmakers were growing nervous about constituent reaction to the shutdown a day before some federal workers could find themselves without a paycheck.
"We're trying to step up and help the president, help the minority leaders get to a point to where they can negotiate," Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said of Trump and Democratic congressional leaders.
Tillis, who could face a tough re-election in 2020, told reporters that senators are talking about including other immigration issues in a package with money for Trump's border wall.
Whether the notoriously private McConnell was receptive or not was unknown: "Leader McConnell's a great leader," Tillis said. "He listens."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Wednesday night hosted the same group of senators in his Senate office. He said he was recommending to McConnell that the Senate take up Trump's budget request for $5 billion for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and hold a committee hearing. He suggested the compromise would attract Democrats by including narrow legal protections for certain undocumented immigrants.
Graham said the deal needs to be driven by the Senate, arguing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by rejecting Trump's call for wall money, can no longer be a factor in negotiations.
"Pelosi has dealt herself out after what she told the president, she's a non-player," Graham said. "The only hope we have now lies in the Senate."
At a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Pelosi reportedly told Trump she would never give him money for the wall, even if the government reopened to allow for border security negotiations.
McConnell, up for re-election in 2020 in a state where Trump is more popular than the majority leader, has been largely sidelined during the shutdown, despite a reputation as a canny negotiator.
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After Trump refused to accept a spending bill that the Senate passed in December by 96-0 on a voice vote, McConnell insisted that the Senate will only vote for a spending bill that Trump will sign.
But as the government shutdown threatens to set a new record, a number of Senate Republicans up for re-election in states that Trump lost in 2016 have urged Republicans to quickly get the government up and running.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., last week called for re-opening the government even without a deal on Trump's wall. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who could also face a challenging re-election said she'd like to see Trump support at least part of the House Democrats' plan to reopen the government.
Republican senators involved in current discussions with McConnell -- led by Graham -- include Collins, Tillis, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio. At Graham's office meeting Wednesday night, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was also in attendance, suggesting he might also be interested in the group's gambit.
Senate Democrats this week have sought to increase the pressure on Senate Republicans and McConnell, a master of Senate procedure and nuance, by blocking votes on any legislation unrelated to the government shutdown. McConnell tussled on the Senate floor with Democrats before meeting with the Senate Republicans.
"The Senate itself is being shut down because of colleagues' refusal to do business," McConnell complained. "There is no precedence for that, there's no reason, we're all here."
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