Senate’s Radical Reasonable Caucus Finds Its Moment

Will a group of 20 senators be able to gain influence?

A bipartisan group of Senators hold a new conference in the Capitol on Monday after they voted to end debate on a continuing resolution to reopen the government. From left, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, Tim Kaine, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin III, Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski, Amy Klobuchar and Maggie Hassan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In a Senate environment where party discipline has been the norm, a group of senators that lobbied leadership to accept a resolution to end the government shutdown Monday now has leverage, if they decide to use it.

“One of the good outcomes is that we had a group of 20 … that built a lot of trust with each other. So it could create an environment, at least over the next month or so, where some really positive things happen,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a GOP participant, said Monday. “On the Democratic side, it was necessary to have a large group of Republicans [who] were committed to try and resolve these issues.”

Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said in an interview that the group that met in the office of his fellow Mainer, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, was based off a similar one that worked to resolve the 2013 government shutdown.

“The whole idea was to bring together a group from both sides that could have some influence on their leaders to try to first find an agreement we thought would work, and then urge the leaders to move in that direction,” King said.

He said the previous group had about a dozen members, compared to the bipartisan team of 20 that came together this time. The lawmakers involved aren’t all ideologically in sync, but they tend to default toward pragmatism.

“What we discussed this morning was how we could get [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell to make a stronger statement about what was going to happen on Feb. 8, than he did last night,” King said. “And he did.”

The group held multiple meetings after Friday, even using a “talking stick” provided by Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota to make sure participants didn’t talk over one another.

Watch: Working the Weekend — Highlights from the Shutdown Floor Debate

Under pressure

Liberal groups have blasted Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York for taking the deal to reopen the government, which is predicated on a promise from McConnell that a process for floor debate will follow expiration of the new stopgap spending measure, assuming the government stays open then.

Democrats who are thought to be contemplating 2020 presidential bids generally voted against the motion to break the filibuster of the legislation to end the shutdown.

But for members of the group of 20, the instinct is trust but verify.

“One of the questions I’ve gotten today is, can you trust Mitch’s promise that he’ll bring the bill up?” King said. “There are members of his caucus who have a stake in that.”

“It’s impossible to get guarantees, but I think his statement today was very strong and very clear, and for the first time ever, we have a commitment to a vote on DACA,” he said.

The involvement of so many members of McConnell’s party won over Democrats such as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

“He has made these promises to not just [Jeff] Flake or not just Collins but to a dozen Republicans who have insisted, and if you’re a leader of a party here … when you say it to 10 or 12 Republican members … it would be pretty hard to renege on,” Brown said.

Sen. Chris Coons noted that the agreement leaves the policy work for the coming weeks, but the Delaware Democrat viewed even that as progress.

“I’ve been here seven years. It’s been five years since we’ve had a real debate on the floor about immigration, and I’ve been on the Appropriations Committee for four years; we have not had a functioning, healthy appropriations process for, frankly, nearly a decade,” Coons said. “So we are four months into the current fiscal year with no floor votes on any appropriations bills, that’s the big crisis that we haven’t addressed yet and we’re going to have to in a bipartisan way.”

Common ground

Collins indicated that the members of the group of 20 were unanimous in thinking that Congress needs to do something legislatively to resolve the status of the recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that Trump is phasing out.

“What we shared in common was the determination to reopen government and convince our leaders that there is a path forward that will accommodate those of us who are concerned about the fate of the ‘Dreamers’ who live in this country, many of whom have known no other country as their home,” Collins said. “They will be at risk of deportation starting in March if legislation is not passed.”

Collins led the effort along with Sen. Joe Manchin III. The West Virginia Democrat was invited Monday to meet with President Donald Trump about immigration, along with Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, before casting their final votes in favor of reopening the government.

This group of 20 might be more reminiscent of the old gang of 14, which gathered to short-circuit a standoff over judicial nominations during the George W. Bush administration, than any of the policy-focused gangs that have sprung up in recent years, however.

“I think one of the important things to come out of this is that this group, No. 1, exists, and No. 2, feels that there’s a reason to stay in business,” King said. “We’re going to continue to meet, because in a Senate that’s 51 to 49 — 20 senators from both sides can have a very strong influence.”

Joe Williams contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.