WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump agreed Friday to reopen the federal government for three weeks while negotiations proceeded over how to secure the nation’s southwestern border, backing down after a monthlong standoff failed to force Democrats to give him billions of dollars for his long-promised wall.
The decision paved the way for Congress to quickly pass spending bills that Trump would sign to restore normal operations at a series of federal agencies until Feb. 15 and begin paying again the 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed or forced to work for free for 35 days.
The surprise announcement was a remarkable comedown for a president who made the wall his nonnegotiable condition for reopening the government. But Trump relented as the effects of the shutdown rippled across the Northeast, with effects far beyond paychecks, such as air traffic slowing Friday because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, who called in sick.
With polls showing the president enduring most of the blame by the public, Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, pressured Trump to agree to the temporary cease-fire. Over the next three weeks, a committee representing both parties will negotiate a border security plan, but if it fails to reach a consensus, government agencies could close again.
The president’s concession came a day after two competing measures to reopen the government failed on the Senate floor. A Democratic bill, which would have reopened the government with no strings attached, received more votes than the bill backed by Trump, which included temporary protections for some immigrants in the country illegally in exchange for $5.7 billion for his proposed border wall.
McConnell spent part of Friday morning talking to Trump about what kind of border security the president would accept — other than a wall — in exchange for a promise from Democrats that they would at least debate the wall in the Senate during the regular course of business, according to a senior Republican aide familiar with the talks.
This person said that McConnell’s goal was to pressure moderate Democrats, who had expressed openness to a physical barrier, to agree to one. If they did not, the person said, Republicans or Trump could shut down the government again — with much of the pressure caused by 800,000 federal workers who had gone without pay somewhat alleviated.
On the Senate floor Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators signed on to an amendment that would open the government for three weeks without conditions and with a commitment in good faith to negotiate a broader border security solution in that time.
“What we have put on the table is our reputation as legislators, that given three weeks, we’ll come up with a successful conclusion on the border security issue,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
Republican leaders tried to rally their members during a closed policy luncheon before Thursday’s votes. But even as Republicans prepared to support Trump’s plan, there were signs of mounting frustration over the tactics being used around the continued impasse and a lack of momentum toward a solution.
At one point during the lunch, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., vented at McConnell for putting Republicans in the position of having to vote on two competing approaches to reopen the government — one Republican and one Democratic — without consulting Senate Republicans first.
“You put us in this position,” Johnson said, according to one of his aides. Another senior Republican aide familiar with the exchange said Johnson told McConnell it was “your fault.” McConnell, who had largely absented himself from negotiations to reopen the government until late last week, responded, “Are you suggesting I’m enjoying this?”
Details of the exchange were first reported by The Washington Post.
At another point, McConnell also signaled Vice President Mike Pence, who was present for the lunch, that Senate Republicans were generally not supportive of shutdowns.
“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,” he said, repeating a line he has used frequently, according to another person familiar with the exchange.
And other Republican senators made their own reservations about the continued shutdown clear. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska raised the crippling effect on the Coast Guard, for instance, this person said.