President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders are at such loggerheads that he walked out of a curt negotiating session Wednesday when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi flatly rejected border wall funding.
Officially, neither side appears to be budging late Thursday, with Trump repeating his threat to declare a national emergency and use unspent billions in the military budget to erect the new barrier along the U.S. Southern border with Mexico.
Look closer in Congress, however, and there are cracks appearing in the determined facades of both sides as the government approaches the 20th day with a quarter of its 2 million employees at home on furloughs.
Trump must depend upon Senate Republicans to continue backing him on the border wall funding issue, but that may be the weak spot in the chief executive’s strategy.
At least four GOP members of the upper chamber have already said they will support re-opening the government without Democrats agreeing to Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for the wall, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) being the most recent.
“I think we can walk and chew gum,” Murkowski told journalists Tuesday, saying she is “amenable to a process that would allow for those appropriations bills that have concluded some time ago that they be enacted into law, whether it’s the Department of Interior or the IRS. I’d like to see that.”
Murkowski told Roll Call Thursday “I certainly don’t think that it benefits us to have a continued shutdown and I don’t think the president enjoys the shutdown.”
Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Cory Gardiner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine are the other three GOP lawmakers Trump cannot expect to support keeping the government closed over the border wall funding impasse.
Murkowski’s colorful statement is significant for two reasons. First, her remark was picked up later in the day by Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) during Tuesday’s debate on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s motion to force an end to Democrat stalling that is keeping the Senate from conducting regular business.
“This is the U.S. Senate. We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Risch said. He supported McConnell’s motion but using Murkowski’s words could be an ominous warning to Trump that the Idahoan’s patience only goes so far.
Second, Murkowski is one of a small group of senators working intensely since Wednesday out of McConnell’s office seeking a way out of the impasse and to reopen the government.
Led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the group is pushing for a deal in which Democrats would give Trump his border wall funding and in return he would let an estimated 700,000 “Dreamers”—individuals brought to the U.S. as children by illegal immigrant parents—remain in this country without fear of being deported.
Other Republicans who could be next to break with Trump on the shutdown are Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has been openly and harshly critical of the chief executive, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander, who is retiring next year, has been lukewarm throughout Trump’s tenure in the oval office.
Another less-noticed factor pressing on the GOP senators as the shutdown continues is the fact 22 of them must seek re-election in 2020.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also cannot count on all of his side’s 45 senators to stay strong against Trump.
Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, for example, conceded during a CNN interview Wednesday that “some fencing is useful, some barriers are useful. There’s a lot of surveillance technology. I’ve been to some cities on the border that have triple fencing and have more personnel and have the technology to see the people moving in the middle of the night.”
And even Schumer’s right-hand man, Senate Democratic Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) conceded in another CNN discussion that “I can tell you, we’ve had fencing in the past, I’m sure we will in the future.” He hastened to add, however, “it won’t be a 2,000-mile wall.”
As for Pelosi, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said on CNN that “if we have a partial wall, if we have fencing, if we have technology used to keep our borders safe, all of that is fine.”
Democrats may be worried they are losing the public relations battle to Trump. A Rasmussen Reports poll made public Wednesday found that 41 percent of those surveyed want Congress to “do more of what Trump wants.” That’s a 12-point gain in support for Trump since January 2017.