As the partial government shutdown stretched into its 19th day on Wednesday — three days after Sen. Lindsey Graham went on national television and accused Democratic negotiators of calling Republicans “racists” — the South Carolina Republican was making calls to Democrats to craft bipartisan legislation to end the impasse.
Graham found little immediate success. Hours after the calls, Graham left his office for the night after hosting a small group of Senate Republicans as well as Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law. They discussed ways to restart federal operations. No Democrats participated.
“I didn’t invite them,” Graham told reporters as he exited the building.
The day’s events GOP-only gathering vividly illustrated just how difficult it will be to end the shutdown as trust between the two parties remains perilously low.
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Graham is eager to produce legislation, which he said he hoped could emerge by the week’s end, that would include $5 billion for Trump’s border wall at the U.S.-Mexico border along with narrow legal protections for certain undocumented immigrants.
More than 700,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which helps the so-called “Dreamers,” are at risk for deportation, as are nearly 400,000 individuals in the country under Temporary Protected Status.
“Democrats are not going to give the president $5.7 billion for border security unless they have something that they want, too,” Graham said. “I think there’s a deal to be had.”
Under ordinary circumstances, Graham might be right. But Democrats have been reluctant to embrace this idea without knowing whether President Donald Trump would back it.
On Wednesday, they also remained disinclined to put their names on legislation that would formalize the wall-money-for-DACA deal, or even be seen as interested in learning more.
“We have talked around this a number of times and I keep reminding (Graham about) the last time we tried this: It exploded in our faces,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Graham’s longtime collaborator on immigration overhaul efforts.
“I cannot mislead these (Dreamers) again into believing President Trump wants to solve the problem he created. I’m going to need some real assurance before I take any conversation seriously,” Durbin said.
Nearly a year ago, Durbin and Graham presented Trump with an immigration bill that would protect the DACA population, which Trump put in jeopardy by saying he would end the program President Barack Obama created through an executive order. Trump at first agreed to the framework, then rejected it, demanding more concessions.
The effort then collapsed.
Trump has now said he wants to end the shutdown and fund the border wall first. He would prefer to delay more conversations on a permanent DACA fix until after the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the White House’s efforts to end it.
Though Graham said he was making calls to Democrats Wednesday morning, he would not name names. None of the lawmakers he typically works with on immigration issues, in conversations with McClatchy, would commit publicly to formally joining him.
Asked what he thought of Graham’s efforts to get a group together to end the shutdown, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, said dryly, “Good for him.”
Coons, regarded as a Democrat willing to find a compromise, said, “We’ve spoken several times since the shutdown began. I know he’s spoken to other senators.
“It’s fine, it may even be helpful, for there to have preliminary decisions...,” Coons conceded, “(but) how is it that Lindsey Graham is going to negotiate anything unless he knows, with clarity, what the president is willing to accept?”
Durbin also said he was not currently working with Graham to craft bipartisan legislation.
“He was kind of mysterious with me yesterday,” Durbin said of Graham on Wednesday. “I asked him what’s going on, he said something to me that didn’t make any sense, I said ‘What the hell does that mean?’ and he said, ‘Well, you’ll see,’ and he walked away.”
Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado — two past Graham collaborators on immigration legislation — told McClatchy they speak to Graham frequently, but as of Wednesday afternoon they had not spoken to him about this particular effort, either.
Graham said he understood Democrats’ concerns.
“That’s not an unreasonable request,” Graham said of Democrats wanting a commitment from Trump that he would support a compromise. But the senator said, “We won’t know until we put something in front of him.
“I’ve been talking about this for almost two months now,” said Graham of his proposed deal. “Other people are beginning to talk about it, but it’s gotta be coming from a larger group than just me. If it comes from a larger group, then who knows.”
The meeting Graham held with Republicans Wednesday evening could be a step towards building the consensus necessary to produce a product members can shop to other lawmakers — including Democrats — and eventually to Trump.
Kushner, who left the meeting without answering reporters’ questions, has expressed an interest in helping the DACA population as part of a compromise to fund the border wall.
Other Senate Republicans in attendance — Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — are regarded as more pragmatic senators.
Speaking briefly with reporters following the meeting, Graham said he and the group assembled were looking at ideas that would “draw some bipartisan support.
“It’s in its infant stages, no commitment by anybody,” he cautioned, “but I’m somewhat hopeful that maybe there’s a way to get what the president wants in a fashion that would do the least amount of damage to the country as possible.”