SALT LAKE CITY — For the thousands of federal workers who haven't seen a paycheck this year, it's tough to see a silver lining to Thursday's vote in the U.S. Senate, where two proposals to reopen the government failed to pass.
But many lawmakers and political observers agree that the predicted rejection of the competing GOP and Democrat proposals was actually a step forward to ending the record-long shutdown, which was in its 34th day when senators officially showed where they stood on solving the stalemate.
While both bills failed on a largely party-line vote, there were some signs of a willingness to compromise. Six Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney from Utah, broke ranks and voted yes on both the GOP and Democrat proposals. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, was the sole Democrat to vote yes on both bills.
Romney said his double yes votes reflected what he heard from Utah voters: to open government and secure the border. He said President Donald Trump's proposed compromise would have achieved both goals.
"When that measure failed, I also voted for an alternative proposal that would open the government and give the Democrats two weeks to put up or shut up — come to the table and agree to a final deal on border security and enforcement," he said in a statement.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., voted no on both proposals. Lee expressed frustration that senators weren't given the chance to debate, amend or vote on the merits of the proposals.
“If this had been a vote to begin debate on a deal to end the shutdown, I would have happily voted yes,” Lee said. “But this was a vote to end debate on a bill that I believe is fundamentally flawed. In fact, after specifically asking for assurances that we would be allowed to offer amendments, no assurances were given. This bill as is simply does not do enough to reform our immigration system or address the crisis at our southern border.”
But some said the so-called test votes were an intentional signal to the public and recalcitrant lawmakers, as well as the Trump administration, that further negotiations are needed to close a deep divide, explained Jim Curry, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah.
"To resolve this kind of impasse requires votes from both parties, which means that you need to have things in a final deal that both sides can point to and claim victory on," he said.
Some senators sounded hopeful Thursday's vote begins that process.
“Is this the beginning of the end, or is it just the end of the beginning? We shall find out,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in The New York Times.
The Associated Press reported that shortly after the vote Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., huddled in the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for 30 minutes as senators from both parties took to the Senate floor to advocate reopening agencies for three weeks while bargainers seek a solution.
"We're talking," Schumer told reporters, one of the most encouraging statements either side has made since the shutdown began.
Behind the curtain
The shutdown saga that stretches back to Dec. 22 has revealed the political dynamics of Washington, where partisan divisions, procedural rules and power ceded to a select few make it difficult to get things done.
"Political incentives are not aligned right now to promote bipartisanship," said Frances E. Lee, a University of Maryland political science professor and author of several books on the political dynamics of Congress. "It's pretty sharply distinct demographically and geographically. Split ticket voting is very low."
She explained there have been parallel periods in American history and democracy survived. "It doesn't have to destroy the functioning of the system of government. In fact, I think we'll get through this as we've gotten through similar impasses."
Not even having unified control of the executive and legislative branches of government ensures a president will get his highest priorities through. She pointed out that President Barack Obama's climate change initiative failed, as did President George W. Bush's Social Security reform and President Bill Clinton's health care reform.
"There's nothing unusual about presidents going down in total defeat in Congress," professor Lee said. "Donald Trump doesn't have a lot of experience in politics, so for him I think he takes this harder. But it's a very normal thing in Washington politics."
As Curry explained, the way to break an impasse is to find ways where all parties can save face and come away saying, "We won."
Given that the Senate in December had passed a proposal similar to what was defeated Thursday is an indication that there is room for compromise. And there has been some movement toward that in the past week.
The GOP bill rejected by the Senate was essentially the offer Trump made to Democrats over the weekend, which the Times said "was loosely modeled after an idea that was the centerpiece of quiet bipartisan talks to strike a compromise over the past several weeks to end the shutdown."
The bargaining chips appear to be permanent protection for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which Democrats want, and $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump wants.
The fact that Trump offered a temporary reprieve for Dreamers and that Democrats have in the past approved funding for border walls are more indications there is room to negotiate, observers agreed.
"It seems like they're getting closer," Curry said. "You have weeks of essentially no movement on actual negotiating, literally a standoff with both parties sort of appealing to the electorate on their specific position."
But with shutdown's impact reaching beyond the beleaguered 800,000 federal workers into the broader economy, as PBS reported, the pressure is building for a solution.
Polls are showing that public sentiment on the shutdown and security along the U.S. Mexico border is increasingly against Trump, The New Yorker reported, indicating Democrats may have the advantage in negotiations.
But while there seems to be room to negotiate on money and policy, there is no easy compromise on what has turned into battle over symbolism.
"The wall is very important symbolically for the president. It's his most visible campaign promise," professor Lee said. "And for Democrats is a symbol of xenophobia."
News reports Thursday gave an indication of the importance of that symbolism, with stories about House Democrats discussing a proposal to spend more than $5.2 billion on a "smart wall" with drones, sensors, some additional fencing, "but no wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico."
And Trump tweeted early in the day, he has no plans to change what he means by a wall: "Without a Wall there cannot be safety and security at the Border or for the U.S.A. BUILD THE WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL!"
Without a Wall there cannot be safety and security at the Border or for the U.S.A. BUILD THE WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2019
The negotiations from here will be handled by Republican and Democratic leaders, four people that the rank-and-file have delegated power to cut deals and negotiate directly with the White House.
Curry, author of Legislating in the Dark, which examines how congressional leadership operates, explained that delegating those powers to leadership is an efficient way to get work done, but it doesn't always work for those members who "aren't in step with the orthodoxy of the party all the time."
That dynamic revealed itself this week when centrist Democrats, including Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, signed a letter criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other leaders for their "brinkmanship" that is "punishing families, destabilizing our economy, weakening our national security, and embarrassing our great country on the world stage."
While it was a letter and not legislation, it can have influence, Curry said.
"If they can hold together on that demand that gives them leverage because now there's 30 of them and she probably needs a large chunk of that 30 to get whatever deal she cuts passed," he said.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the partial federal government shutdown was in its 35th day when the U.S. Senate voted on two bills to end it. It was in its 34th day.