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McConnell raises hopes as government shutdown enters Day 3

WASHINGTON — Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell raised some Democrats’ hopes for a quick end to the government shutdown Monday, saying “I hope and intend” to reach agreement soon on immigration and other contentious issues — if the Democrats agree now to a stopgap spending measure lasting a little less than three weeks.

The Senate was to vote later in the day on that measure — to cut off a Democratic filibuster — with most government offices cut back drastically or even closed on Monday. The shutdown began at midnight Friday, but the major effects are only now being felt with the beginning of the workweek.

McConnell said he hopes to reach bipartisan solutions on immigration, border security, disaster aid, military funding and more by Feb. 8. If not, he said “it would be my intention to take up legislation” addressing those issues.

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer did not come to the floor to respond to McConnell, but at least two Democrats who have been attempting to negotiate a way out of the shutdown mess said they were encouraged by McConnell’s tone.

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said he’s “enormously optimistic” that there is a pathway to stop the shutdown. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said McConnell was “more specific and encouraging.” A bipartisan group of Senate moderates met again Monday morning to try and find resolution.

The Senate over the weekend inched closer but ultimately fell short of a deal that could have reopened the government before the beginning of the workweek. McConnell and Schumer said negotiations lasted late into the night.

Under the proposal taking shape, Democrats would agree to a short-term spending measure in return for a commitment from the Republican leadership in the Senate to address immigration policy and other pressing legislative matters in the coming weeks.

On Sunday night, Democrats appeared to be holding out for a firmer commitment from McConnell. “We have yet to reach an agreement on a path forward,” Schumer said.

There were hours of behind-the-scenes talks over the weekend between the leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers over how to end the display of legislative dysfunction, which began at midnight Friday after Democrats blocked a temporary spending measure. Democrats have sought to use the spending bill to win concessions, including protections for roughly 700,000 younger immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

Republicans have appeared increasingly confident that Democrats are bearing the brunt of criticism for the shutdown and that they will ultimately buckle. The White House and GOP leaders said they would not negotiate with Democrats on immigration until the government is reopened.

President Donald Trump on Monday accused Democrats of prioritizing services and security for noncitizens over U.S. citizens. “Not good,” his first tweet said. In a second tweet, he said, “Democrats have shut down our government in the interests of their far left base. They don’t want to do it but are powerless!”

Trump’s first tweet appeared to undercut comments by his legislative affairs director, Marc Short, who told CNN that the immigrants in question are law-abiding and “productive to our society.” Short says the administration wants to “find a pathway for them” to stay in the U.S.

It appeared that Democratic resolve was beginning to waver, with growing worries that a prolonged shutdown could prove to be an electoral headache for the party just as it has grown more confident about prospects in November midterm elections.

Although they initially dug in on a demand for an immigration deal, Democrats had shifted to blaming the shutdown on the incompetence of Republicans and Trump, seeming sensitive to being seen by voters as willing to tie up government operations to protect immigrants.

Trump, who regularly disrupted negotiations in recent weeks, had been a relatively subdued player in the weekend debate. He has not appeared in public since Friday afternoon. The White House said he was in regular contact with Republican leaders, but he has not reached out to any Democrats, a White House official said.

Democrats are facing intense pressure from their base to solve the issue over the young immigrants, commonly referred to as “Dreamers,” and they are skeptical of Republicans’ credibility when offering to take up the issue. Whether Trump would back the emerging plan or any later proposal on immigration is an open question.

While lawmakers feuded, signs of the shutdown were evident at national parks and in some federal agencies. Social Security and most other safety-net programs were unaffected by the lapse in federal spending authority. Critical government functions continued, with uniformed service members, health inspectors and law enforcement officers set to work without pay.

The political stakes soared Monday morning, when thousands of federal workers were told to stay home or, in many cases, work without pay.

The emerging approach found advocates in South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been trying to broker an immigration deal, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Republicans who rejected an earlier short-term proposal. GOP Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another previous no-vote, announced he would vote in favor of reopening the government Monday.

The vote Monday will prove to be a test of unity and resolve among Democrats. Five Democrats from states won by Trump broke ranks in a vote Friday. The measure gained 50 votes to proceed to 49 against, but 60 were needed to break a Democratic filibuster.