First the Senate rejected two spending bills. Then McConnell went to work

Mitch McConnell is back at the center of talks to end the partial government shutdown, as his colleagues are hopeful the master negotiator’s involvement may be the break that ends the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The Senate majority leader and his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, met briefly in McConnell’s Capitol office Thursday after Republican and Democratic efforts to end the stalemate died on the Senate floor.

Schumer left McConnell’s office with a smile, telling reporters “We’re talking.”

The White House noticed. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders highlighted in a statement that “ Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Chuck Schumer are meeting now to see whether or not they can work out of the deadlock,” while making it clear that a Senate proposal under discussion to open the government with a short-term spending plan would “only work if there is a large down payment on the wall.”

Senators said McConnell’s decision to put the competing spending plans to floor votes Wednesday could help nudge the warring parties toward a solution. McConnell had told senators during a Senate lunch that he’d talk with Schumer after the votes.

“At least they’re talking about it and that’s more than we were doing last week,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. “At least they came together for this. This is progress, but it’s only real progress if you can go another step.”

McConnell has kept largely out of view during the public and Senate debate, arguing that the standoff was between President Donald Trump, who has demanded a $5.7 billion down payment for the wall he wants to build at the U.S.-Mexico border, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who opposes a border wall.

Democrats have blamed McConnell for the impasse, noting that he’s refused to take up any House-passed legislation to re-open the government, even though much of it the House bill is modeled after legislation that cleared the Senate in December.

Until Wednesday, when he scheduled vote on a Trump-backed measure that included money for the wall and temporary immigration measures, along with a Democratic initiative that would open the government, but not provide any money for the wall. Both failed to get even close to the 60 needed to limit debate.

The Kentucky Republican’s colleagues suggested that McConnell’s timing comes as frustrations have reached a boiling point. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tore into each other on the Senate floor over the shutdown.

“My sense is that McConnell was waiting for this vote,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida. “I’m guessing with it, he’s going to go to Schumer and say, ‘We’re kind of stuck here.’ “

He said the hope was that McConnell would talk to the White House and Schumer would speak with Pelosi “and hopefully get them talking again so we can move forward on getting this thing resolved.

“The hope is that we will now be able to show the president, show the speaker where the cards are and the reality of how we’re divided on this issue,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he didn’t believe McConnell would be able to influence Pelosi, “but to the extent that the reason we’re voting now on this is because leader McConnell went to the White House and said ‘We have to put something out there.’ “

Rubio suggested the timing may be right. “If it had been weeks ago, there might not have been enough pressure to get people to focus on it like where we are now. It’s the dangest thing I’ve ever seen. No one likes the shutdown, but no one can figure out a way to get ourselves out of it,” he said.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, said talks between McConnell and Schumer talks are key to ending the shutdown, shifting the narrative away from Pelosi and Trump.

“Obviously, the president and the House are at odds with each other, I think we should be able to resolve it in a bipartisan way in the Senate,” Lankford said. “For McConnell and Schumer to be able to work this out and say how do we get out of this is I think a reasonable place.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, insisted even in the defeat of the two bills that there was a glimmer of progress. The positions, he said, have moved from “wall/no wall to still wall/no wall, but there’s more consensus that we need to get government back open.”

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.