‘We’re stuck.’ McConnell’s appearance and Graham’s maneuvers meet a wall

Mitch McConnell, uncharacteristically absent from deliberations as the shutdown approached the three-week mark, suddenly emerged as a player Thursday. But only for a few hours, and by the end of the day continued to vigorously defend President Donald Trump’s insistence that a U.S.-Mexico wall is needed.

McConnell had hosted a group of GOP senators in his office Thursday morning to discuss a compromise to break the impasse, but the White House quickly rejected the proposal.

The Senate majority leader then retreated back to his regularly scheduled agenda — a meeting with Attorney General nominee William Barr.

McConnell, R-Kentucky, ended his afternoon by going to the Senate floor to say he had just spoken on the phone with Trump, who agreed to legislation guaranteeing furloughed government employees would be compensated “to ease their anxiety” as the shutdown continues.

The partial shutdown is due to reach its 21st day Friday, tying the record set in 1996.

What’s not known is whether McConnell will gather members into his office again to discuss strategies or do as he’s done the past three weeks, which is eviscerate Democrats on the Senate floor for refusing to give Trump $5.7 billion for his border wall and otherwise wait for Democrats and Trump to broker a deal.

Asked about McConnell’s next step, Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, reiterated that Democrats “need to start negotiating with the President on a bill that can become law. That core requirement hasn’t changed.”

About all McConnell has had to say publicly about the shutdown so far is that it’s Democrats’ fault and the U.S.-Mexico border wall should be built.

He’s been notably absent from recent press conferences at the White House after meetings with the president and, until Thursday, offered no evidence he was taking serious steps to end the impasse.

Sure enough, after Thursday’s talks broke down, McConnell had nothing to say about the shutdown. Instead, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, broke the news to the public.

“We’re stuck,” Graham said.

Graham was the architect of a compromise he and a group of Republican senators known as the pragmatists of the party were shopping to McConnell and, by extension, the White House, Thursday morning.

Late Wednesday, Graham hosted half a dozen of these lawmakers in his office, along with President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to discuss a framework.

By Thursday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence had rejected the bid to reopen government for a brief period of time in order to debate Trump’s border security proposal and negotiate protections for certain young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.”

Graham declared he was “done” hosting meetings and was headed to the gym.

“I have never been more depressed about moving forward as I am right now,” Graham told reporters. “I just don’t see a pathway forward. Someone’s gotta, like, get the energy to fix this.”

Graham later issued a statement saying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to give Trump money for the wall, “virtually ends the congressional path” to end the shutdown and endorsed Trump’s call to use his emergency powers to fund construction of a border wall.

“I hope it works,” Graham said of Trump’s threat to declare a national emergency and use federal funds to build the wall, bypassing Congress.

McConnell has steadfastly refused to allow the Senate to vote on any legislation to reopen government that does not have sufficient Democratic support and Trump’s explicit approval.

“The Senate itself is being shut down because of colleagues refusal to do business,” McConnell complained on the Senate floor Thursday. “There is no precedence for that, there’s no reason, we’re all here.”

Echoing many other Republicans, Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, called Graham’s meeting in McConnell’s office “the same sort of stuff on a different day.

“You got all kinds of groups meeting and gangs meeting and caucuses meeting,” he said, “but what counts is what (President Donald) Trump thinks and what (Speaker Nancy Pelosi) thinks. That’s what it comes down to.”

Yet if Graham and McConnell can’t fix it — two senators known as the go-to negotiators to broker complicated deals — it’s not clear what happens next.

Asked whether Trump, too, bore some blame for not wanting to address a broader immigration package as part of a compromise, Graham replied, “that’s the least of my problems.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was working with Graham on a compromise, said it was hard to move forward when Pelosi and Trump are both “very dug in.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the lawmakers meeting with Graham on Wednesday night, said he wasn’t giving up.

“You never know what happens,” he said.

But on Thursday afternoon, at least, McConnell appeared to be moving on.

“I am very pleased with (Trump’s) nomination of Bill Barr to be the Attorney General of the United States,” McConnell tweeted. “His judgment, independence and experience make him an excellent choice for this important position and I look forward to working with him.”

He included a photo of himself and Barr shaking hands.

Kate Irby and Alex Daugherty of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.