This story was updated.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) gleefully clinked plastic glasses outside the Senate last week as they celebrated the success of the chamber’s group of moderates in forging a deal to limit the latest government shutdown.
"I think that our group can continue to play a very constructive role," said Collins, who recounted bipartisan meetings in her office where she used a rainbow-hued African "talking stick" to encourage both sides to keep negotiating.
Manchin — who in announcing his intent to run for re-election last week amid the bickering said, "This place sucks" — was more charitable as the federal government reopened, saying the group of more than two dozen senators had shown "we came here to make this place work."
Indeed, much of the praise for ending the three-day shutdown was showered on the so-called common-sense coalition, which started out with 17 members and grew to about 30 by the end of the shutdown weekend.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the group who served as a conduit to leaders, joked, "Susan’s office is Switzerland. This is the one place we can all go and feel good."
But even before federal employees made it back to work last Tuesday, Capitol Hill was moving beyond the good feelings and asking if the group could have lasting power in breaking other legislative logjams.
Their first big test will come soon as Congress tries to reach what has been an evasive budget deal by Feb. 8 that would pave the way to provide overdue funding to agencies. Senators say the group’s more ambitious goal is finding a way to rejuvenate the annual appropriations process.
The Senate in recent years has seen few spending bills move to the floor as both parties have blocked them from getting the 60 votes needed to be called up for debate. This year, the Senate failed to consider a single spending bill, a major factor in last week’s shutdown.
For agencies like U.S. EPA and the Energy and Interior departments, the trend has meant years have passed without significant Senate floor debate over how much to spend.
Moreover, the process has led to controversial environmental riders often being resolved behind closed doors as broad omnibus spending bills are assembled by leaders.
Senators from both parties say the process has been off-course for too long and may have finally reached a tipping point with the shutdown, from which neither party gained much politically.
A bipartisan push
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who participated in the bipartisan talks, said the effort to reopen the government has produced a "kind of a side conversation" about trying to revive the moribund appropriations process.
"We talked about ‘How did we get here in the first place?’ And the reality is, we have a failure of process when it comes to being able to move our appropriations bills," she told reporters.
"So we’ve been discussing different proposals as to how we can address this," she said. "How can we make the appropriations process one that can actually function again? And I think you’re going to see, based on the conversations that I’ve been a part of, a spinoff from this group to look to do just exactly that."
Murkowski said she would be willing to entertain Senate rule changes to ease appropriations bills, provided they were made on a bipartisan basis, rather than by invoking the "nuclear option" for such changes by a simple majority.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used that option to allow for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year; former Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) employed the same method in 2013 to allow the confirmation of Obama executive branch and judicial nominees.
"I made clear that I’m open to solutions, but if we’re going to be changing the rules around here, we need to be changing the rules with one another, because we’re in the majority today, but there’s no guarantee that we’re going to be in the majority in the next Congress," said Murkowski, who also is a senior Senate appropriator. "So what works for one needs to work for the other."
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, who also was a part of the moderate coalition, said he has spoken several times with Murkowski about trying to get the appropriations process "back on track."
Udall, who actively pushed rule reforms to help ease the passage of legislation in the Senate while Democrats were in the majority, said he remains open to changes agreed to by both sides. But he dismissed proposals discussed in the Rules Committee that aim to ease the confirmation of nominees by reducing debate time.
"Right now, many of the rules changes that are being discussed … are just a way to shove things through faster for the majority," Udall said. "That’s not what’s going to make it work better here."
Reviving floor debates
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a senior appropriator who serves on the Senate GOP leadership team, said that in the wake of the shutdown, he has heard from Democrats who want to "rethink" their strategy of blocking all appropriations bills to force a broader budget deal.
He said moving individual bills on the floor would give more senators a chance to have input via amendment than they do when the bills are rolled into one omnibus.
"We think Democrats and Republicans would like to see a chance to have a say beyond just a few people deciding what the ultimate bill looks like. They [would] have a say on how we spend our money, how we set our priorities," Blunt added.
Manchin said he would also consider rule changes if there is broad agreement. "I think that eventually, the rules and if they’re abided by and adhered to, the rules can protect you from the outside pressures that have basically broken things down," he said.
"So that would be up to the senators to take that up," said Manchin. "We need to identify the problems and fix it so we don’t continue to get in this cycle. And the rules that everyone agrees on could do that."
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), also an appropriator, said one rule change being talked about by both parties is allowing spending bills to come straight to the Senate floor without the initial threat of a filibuster.
He said the change would not completely eliminate the blocking mechanism but would allow a senator to do so only after the bill has first been debated and amendments have been considered.
"The important thing is getting them on the floor, getting the discussion going, having an open amendment process, letting everyone voice their ideas," said Boozman.
Without a bipartisan deal, Boozman suggested, the GOP may move to make the rule change unilaterally if Democrats try to block any of the fiscal 2019 spending bills from coming to the floor. A Senate rule change requires a simple majority vote, and the GOP controls 51 seats.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the architect of the Democratic strategy to deny floor work on any individual spending bill, did not endorse any rules revisions but hinted he would be open to bipartisan ideas from the coalition.
"I encourage these kinds of groups to come forward. I remember the old Senate. I remember that individual senators were involved in negotiating very important and very difficult issues — and it made the Senate a better place," he said.
Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.