Republican Sen. Roy Blunt once played Hearts on a plane for 11 straight hours with Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer.
“Knowing who we are, we probably each contend we won most of the games,” Blunt joked this week in an interview with The Kansas City Star.
The Missouri senator’s longstanding friendships with Democrats such as Hoyer — carefully cultivated for years over card games and conference tables — are reminiscent of an earlier era when working relationships across the aisle were more common than in today’s hyper-partisan Congress.
Blunt’s personal ties to Democrats could pay off in the coming weeks as he steps into a leading role in high-stakes negotiations to fund a border security package and avert another costly government shutdown.
He’ll have to figure out how to satisfy congressional Democrats, who’ve promised not to spend even $1 on a border wall, and save face for President Donald Trump, who made the wall a signature promise of his 2016 campaign.
At negotiators’ first public meeting on Wednesday, Blunt made it clear he expects both sides to make concessions — a break from the winner-take-all politics that has dominated Capitol Hill in recent years.
“Doing our job means by definition nobody gets everything they want,” Blunt said.
Blunt’s willingness to work with Democrats does not mean he’s a neutral player, however. His voting record is solidly conservative on immigration and other issues, with a lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union of 86.59 out of 100. And Blunt has repeatedly criticized Democrats for calling the border wall immoral.
A deal maker
At the time of their marathon card-playing session, roughly a decade ago, Hoyer and Blunt were in powerful roles on opposing leadership teams.
Now the U.S. House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats, and Hoyer is the 2nd-ranking Democrat under Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Blunt is the 4th-ranking Republican in the GOP-led U.S. Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Blunt’s strong relationships with lawmakers in both parties in both chambers of Congress are vital to the border security talks.
“That, paired with his ability to regularly find common ground, will be crucial for this conference committee to be successful,” McConnell said in a statement to The Star.
Known behind the scenes as one of Capitol Hill’s master deal makers, Blunt has brokered bipartisan agreements in recent years to boost budgets for medical research, expand access to mental health services and update Congress’ rules on sexual harassment.
“He’s a heck of a vote counter,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, referring to Blunt’s previous role as GOP whip in the House. “Some people just figure it out instinctively, I guess. He’s got a feel for the moment.”
If he succeeds in crafting a deal, Blunt could see his clout grow among Republicans in the Senate as he looks to rise in the party’s leadership. But striking a bargain won’t be easy.
Politico proclaimed the prospects for a “big border deal” on security and immigration “essentially dead” before negotiations even began Wednesday. Trump himself told the Wall Street Journal the group of lawmakers had a “less than 50-50 chance” to reach any agreement he would sign.
“If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!” Trump said on Twitter shortly before the first meeting.
Trump is the wild card, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. “He’s still insisting that he wants everything he wanted that caused him to shut down in the first place.”
Blunt said he wasn’t concerned about Trump’s comments.
“If the idea was that the president would sign anything we’d send (him), that might undermine our negotiating power,” he said. “But I believe everybody here at the end of the day will make an effort to try to get to a place where we have a bill that the president signs.”
Good will with Democrats
For Democrats, Blunt’s appointment to the committee tasked with negotiating border security signaled that the high-pressure talks could be serious and fair.
Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said he was “thrilled” to learn Blunt’s role.
“I know him well enough to know that he will never want to shut the government down … He is the right person,” said Cleaver, who is close enough with Blunt that their families travel together and socialize on weekends.
“Roy Blunt is a unique creature here in Congress,” Cleaver said. “By that I mean he can have strong relationships with Democrats without losing credibility with Republicans.”
Blunt has built up good will with Democrats not only through a record of legislative cooperation but also through small but meaningful favors.
When Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, became the first sitting senator to give birth last year, she wanted to change Senate rules to allow her to bring her newborn daughter onto the floor for votes.
Blunt volunteered to help.
“In fact, he came to me personally and said, ‘Hey, when I become chairman of the Rules Committee we’re going to make this happen for you because I remember what it was like for me to be able to bring my children on the floor when I was in the House,’” Duckworth recalled.
“He’s very approachable, very willing to work across the aisle,” she said.
Blunt has a warm relationship with Illinois’ other senator, Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. Durbin chatted amicably with Blunt as the pair huddled before the first meeting of congressional negotiators on Wednesday.
Durbin said that he and Blunt have worked together seamlessly in the past on increasing money for medical research. Even though the pair haven’t been at the forefront of the border debate, they know how to craft a funding deal, Durbin said.
As talks get underway, Blunt is thinking big. He told The Star on Tuesday that he’d like to reach a broad deal that would raise budget caps for federal agencies through 2020 and possibly into 2021.
Lifting the country’s debt ceiling also could be on the table, Blunt said. Congress has to act by March 1 so the country can meet its financial obligations and avoid default on its nearly $22 trillion national debt.
“Within reason, I think having a big agenda to look at gives you a chance maybe not to solve every problem that you put on that list, but maybe at least some of the problems on that list,” Blunt said.
The aim is to sweeten the pot for people in both parties and “make it even easier to deal with the border issues that are the fundamental challenge here,” he said.
Blunt also sees the negotiations as an opportunity to address the plight of so-called Dreamers, who were brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents as children.
The Trump administration is waging battle in court to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program established under President Barack Obama, which enables Dreamers to obtain work permits. Trump rejected last year a proposal that would have provided border wall funding in exchange for keeping DACA.
“I’ve been pretty public since day one about the obvious deal here is to do something with DACA kids and to do something that builds the kind of barrier the president wants to build,” Blunt said on Tuesday.
Democrats aren’t entering the talks with a demand that border security funding be tied to other immigration policy provisions, Durbin said.
Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that he doesn’t expect the negotiations on border security to include protections for Dreamers or holders of Temporary Protected Status, which protects immigrants already in the U.S. who can’t return to their home country because of a natural disaster or other crises.
Hoyer said Democrats plan to bring a separate bill in the House to create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, a plan that has faced resistance from Republicans in the past.
On Blunt’s right flank, hardline Republicans in the House are warning against any attempt to expand negotiators’ work beyond the issue of border security.
“They would create all kinds of problems,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Meadows won’t have the votes to stop a bipartisan deal in the Democratic-controlled House, but he’s had Trump’s ear during the battle over the proposed border wall.
“They can talk about scope all they want and if they’re intending to include an amnesty provision that would meet with strong resistance from conservative members in the House, not just Freedom Caucus,” Meadows said. “And I can’t imagine that it would be received well by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Blunt said there are things the president wants beyond a wall, such as an historic jump in defense spending, that negotiators could consider as part of a more sweeping deal.
“I’m hopeful that we can do more than walk and chew gum at the same time as we try to move through the next two and a half weeks,” he said.