Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday he has not been "sidelined" in talks to reopen parts of the government but that he has "no particular role" to play in ending the standoff, a responsibility he said falls to President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats who wield expanded power in the new Congress.
Since he donned a Christmas sweater on the Senate floor 13 days ago -- a sign that he wanted to fund the government before the holiday -- the long-serving Republican leader has diligently distanced himself from negotiations to end the shutdown. He had opposed shutting down the government and seemingly succeeded in avoiding it until Trump abruptly reversed course and said he would not sign a continuing resolution without $5 billion for the border wall.
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In a brief hallway interview, McConnell explained that his role is now reversed from when he and then-Vice President Joe Biden worked to avoid a fiscal cliff and negotiated other tough issues during the Obama administration.
"Well, it's not complicated. I was in this role when Obama was President, and Biden and I did deals because they needed some of our votes. So, now the role is reversed and ultimately the solution to this is a deal between the President and Nancy and Chuck because we need some of Chuck's votes and obviously we need Nancy's support," he said, referring to newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
"So, I haven't been sidelined," McConnell added. "It's just that there's no particular role for me when you have this setup."
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who has been directly involved in the talks with the White House since December, seemed frustrated by the stalled talks as he spoke with reporters off the Senate floor Thursday afternoon: "I think there's a solution here, and it's really not all that complicated, but if people don't want to get to yes for other reasons then it's impossible to bridge that divide."
Cornyn commented that once Pelosi becomes speaker, she'll be "in a better mood to negotiate." Pelosi was sworn in as speaker Thursday afternoon.
Cornyn even ventured to say that he "could see a scenario" where Trump might cut a deal over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for border wall funding, though he added, "the details are important."
Speaking on the opening day of the new session of Congress, McConnell urged Democrats to work with Republicans to pass bipartisan legislation as he touted had happened in the previous session.
"The question is: Will the newly Democratic House join in this good momentum, or bring it to a standstill? It's a clear choice, and it will be clear to the American people watching at home. Good governance, or political performance art? The public interest, or political spite? Policy making, or presidential harassment," he asked.
He reiterated that he would not schedule a vote on a Democratic measure expected to pass late Thursday that would reopen the government.
He called that bill "political theater not productive policymaking."
Schumer pressed McConnell to change course and allow a vote.
"We need to take the lead here in Congress in the hopes that we can show President Trump the sweet light of reason," Schumer said on the floor. "We've given our Republican colleagues a way out of the shutdown based on Republican-approved proposals. All leader McConnell needs to do to open the government is to bring to the floor the legislation that he and nearly every other Republican senator already supports."
McConnell said "several" Democrats have approached him about playing a more active role in the government funding dispute but said, "I don't see how this leads to an outcome."
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who's a close ally of the President's on Capitol Hill, also indicated he was having discussions with a member of the Democratic House leadership on a path forward, but he was not optimistic about a speedy resolution, saying the shutdown could continue for "several weeks."
"I'm telling you there are discussions, but they're not negotiations going on. There are not offers and counteroffers," he told reporters. Meadows spoke about the shutdown on the House floor with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff and a former congressional colleague.
"He's obviously an essential player in all of this," Meadows said of Mulvaney.
On Wednesday, McConnell attended a White House briefing on border security needs for bipartisan congressional leaders that turned quickly to a tense discussion about how to reopen the government.
"I don't think any particular progress was made today," he said when he returned to the Capitol. "But we talked about all aspects of it and it was a civil discussion and we are hopeful that somehow in the coming days or weeks we will be able to reach an agreement."
He's been asked to return to the White House Friday for more talks on the shutdown, something he said he'll attend even if he doesn't see himself playing a critical role to resolve the dispute.
"If there is a meeting, I will be there," he said.
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