WASHINGTON — For weeks, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, has remained conspicuously on the sidelines, insisting that it was up to President Trump and Democrats to negotiate an end to the partial shutdown of the federal government.
But with the shutdown soon to enter its third week, and Mr. Trump dug in on his demand for $ 5 billion to build a border wall, Mr. McConnell for the first time is facing pressure from members of his own party to step in to resolve the stalemate that has left 800,000 federal workers either furloughed or working without pay.
By absenting himself, Mr. McConnell had hoped to push the blame for a prolonged shutdown onto Democrats while protecting Republicans running for re-election in 2020 — including himself. Much as Democrats did in 2018, Republicans will face a difficult map in 2020, with a handful of incumbent senators facing re-election in swing states or states won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
But on Thursday, as a new era of divided government opened in Washington, perhaps the most vulnerable Republican, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, broke ranks to become the first member of his party to call for an end to the shutdown — with or without Mr. Trump’s wall funding.
“I think we should pass a continuing resolution to get the government back open,” Mr. Gardner, whose state has a heavy federal presence, told The Hill newspaper. “The Senate has done it last Congress, we should do it again today.”
A second vulnerable Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the chamber’s most moderate members, said Thursday that she would support separating homeland security funding from the other bipartisan appropriations bills already approved in committee to reopen much of the government — as Democrats have proposed. But Mr. McConnell is refusing to take up the Democrats’ measures.
“It would be great to have them signed into law because there is not great controversy over them, and at least we’d be getting those workers back to work,” Ms. Collins said.
Mr. McConnell’s distant posture reflects his new status as the man in the middle in a Capitol where Democrats now control the House of Representatives and Republicans have netted two seats to hold a 53-to-47 majority in the Senate. He has repeatedly said he will not bring up legislation that Mr. Trump does not support — a point he reiterated in a speech on Thursday on the Senate floor.
“I’ve made it clear on several occasions, and let me say it again: The Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of passing this chamber and getting a presidential signature,” Mr. McConnell said. “Let’s not waste the time. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot, with House Democrats using their new platform to produce political statements rather than serious solutions.”
After two years of trying to advance Mr. Trump’s agenda, Mr. McConnell now sees his primary job as standing in the way of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who vowed in her inaugural speech on Thursday to “reach across the aisle in this chamber,” but who is also poised to pass legislation on a bevy of liberal priorities, including gun restrictions and protections for young undocumented immigrants.
“I think McConnell is going to be Trump’s best friend when it comes to blocking all of Nancy Pelosi’s worst shots,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who is close to Mr. McConnell. “For Trump and McConnell, there’s a lot of good politics for that — particularly for McConnell in Kentucky.”
Democrats are trying to drive a wedge between Republican leaders and their vulnerable incumbents up for re-election in 2020, especially Mr. Gardner, Ms. Collins, Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant after Senator John McCain’s death. The campaign arm of the Senate Democrats released a series of statements to local news media on Thursday targeting each senator and demanding they make a choice to fund the government or “own” the consequences.
“Cory Gardner owns every miserable consequence of his pointless government shutdown, and he just realized it’s a problem for his own political career,” read one from David Bergstein, a campaign committee spokesman. “When he votes 99 percent of the time with President Trump and then tries to run away from his record, all it proves is Coloradans can’t trust him to look out for anyone but himself.”
And Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on Mr. McConnell to jump into the talks with Mr. Trump.
“The power to end the shutdown is in two people’s hands: Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell,” Mr. Schumer said Thursday in a brief hallway interview. “Either one of them could end the shutdown. They both should try.”
Mr. McConnell, 76, is the longest-serving Senate Republican leader in history and is a wily tactician. While he is not generally considered vulnerable, his popularity is lagging at home. A poll by Western Kentucky University last spring found that only 30 percent of Kentuckians approve of his job performance. Sticking with Mr. Trump, whose approval ratings top 50 percent in Kentucky, is in his own political interest.
But if he wants to hang onto his job as majority leader, Mr. McConnell must also be mindful of the political fortunes of Republicans seeking re-election in states won by Mrs. Clinton in 2016 or by Democrats in November. A prolonged government shutdown is the last thing those lawmakers need. And even some Republicans up for re-election in states won by Mr. Trump, like Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, sound uneasy.
“A shutdown, in my view, is a no-win proposition,” Ms. Capito said, adding that she heard complaints from Transportation Security Administration workers as she was returning to Washington for the start of the new Congress this week. Ms. Capito is the chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security; the panel has already passed a bill funding the department, including $ 1.6 billion for border security including fencing — but with no money for Mr. Trump’s wall.
“It is just a lot of unneeded stress on a lot of people,” she said of the shutdown.
“I would like to see it resolved soon,” said Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, who also faces re-election in 2020. She repeated herself for emphasis: “I would like to see it resolved soon.”
For Mr. McConnell, the shutdown fight presents a dynamic that is likely to become familiar over the next two years, as House Democrats rush to pass long-sought liberal policies and, in many cases, try to use the chamber to highlight Republicans’ opposition to legislative changes they believe are overwhelmingly popular. Mr. McConnell has already been burned once, having negotiated and passed through the Senate a plan to avoid the shutdown in the first place only to have Mr. Trump pull his support at the last minute.
“He faces that reality now on every issue: What’s the White House going to do with this?” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and Mr. Schumer’s No. 2. He predicted that Mr. McConnell’s approach — to simply stand in the way so that Mr. Trump is not forced to use his veto pen — would only change if Republican senators up for re-election begin to fear political costs of carrying the president’s water.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Mr. McConnell’s former No. 2, compared Mr. McConnell’s task to “threading a needle.” Mr. McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, said it was considerably more simple than that.
“He’s seen this situation many times before and knows where the leverage points are,” Mr. Holmes said. “He knows that there are attempts to try to get Republicans to negotiate against themselves. But he’s not going to be bullied into putting his conference into a disadvantage.”
Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the Appropriations Committee chairman, has taken a more activist stance, running sideline negotiations with Democrats over the holidays to try to hatch a compromise that they and Mr. Trump could support. But those negotiations ultimately amounted to nothing, and on Thursday, Mr. Shelby predicted a protracted shutdown.
“I am thinking we might be in for a long haul here,” he told reporters. “If we can ever get over this, then you have a new week, a new day and so forth. But if we don’t get over this, if this goes on for months and months — it could, hope not — then this might be a preview of coming attractions.”
Mr. Shelby predicted the standoff would end with one side agreeing to come to the negotiating table, but he bemoaned the half-dozen appropriations bills he helped guide through committee that have, at least for now, been laid to waste.
“Absolutely — it’s frustrating that we have not reached a resolution,” he said.