Shutdown fears, and a wait-and-see game

A partial government shutdown is four days away, and there is no plan to stop it.That's not speculati...

Posted: Dec 18, 2018 4:11 PM
Updated: Dec 18, 2018 4:11 PM

A partial government shutdown is four days away, and there is no plan to stop it.

That's not speculation. That's not a Democratic attack on the White House and President Donald Trump. Those are the words of Republican senators -- several -- as they continue to express frustration about the looming partial government shutdown.

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Everyone, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on down, continues to wait for President Donald Trump to lay out the next steps. Perhaps Tuesday is the day.

Every day that passes makes it more likely, sources say, that the President will eventually have to agree to a short-term punt of his border wall fight until January. But the limited time window also creates the real possibility of one or two false steps leading to a shutdown that everyone on Capitol Hill -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- say they want to avoid.

The Daily Cornyn Reality Check

Sen. John Cornyn, the current No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is a close ally of Trump and has been nothing if not honest the last week about the state of play on spending talks. He continued that run on Monday night, telling reporters plainly: "I don't know of a specific plan yet."

Why Republicans don't just move on their own

GOP leaders don't want to undercut the President. The wall money is Trump's ask, Trump's issue, Trump's campaign promise. Lawmakers privately acknowledge there's zero chance he's getting $5 billion -- or anything close to that -- and sources tell me that message has been conveyed by some lawmakers directly to the President over the phone. But it will take the President to decide the way out of this.

"After all," one senator told me last night, "he can veto anything we send him, so we might as well wait to see what he wants."

McConnell has made clear he does not want a government shutdown, and he talks to Trump on a near daily basis, aides say. But even he hasn't been read in on the next steps, according to one senator who was in the closed door leadership meeting in his office Monday night. McConnell made clear he didn't know the President's plan, or if one even existed.

Where Democrats stand

Democrats are somewhat perplexed by the fact the President still hasn't laid out his next steps but both confident and firm in the position they've held for weeks. Their public statements -- to some degree taunting the President with the clear belief they hold the leverage in the current dynamic -- bear that position out.

Trump's "temper tantrum will get him a shutdown, but it will not get him the wall," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday.

As a reminder

There are seven appropriations bills that need to be addressed by Friday. Six of those are almost entirely agreed to by negotiators. The seventh -- the Department of Homeland Security measure -- is tied up because of the single issue that has defined this fight: border wall funding. While there have been discussions about separating the DHS measure from the others, Republicans have rejected that option. Everything will have to stay together going forward, sources make clear. That means funding for 25% of the federal government is entirely contingent on an agreement on border wall funding -- or one side choosing to cave on their current position.

One thing there is clear agreement on

If the government shuts down on Saturday at 12:01 a.m. ET, it will not re-open until the new Congress gavels into session in January. House Democratic staffers are already preparing funding measures to pass and lob over to the Senate as soon as the new Congress convenes. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has made clear that would be her first action as speaker should the government shut down.

The mechanics of what comes next

Multiple people involved in the spending negotiations made clear to CNN Monday that a short-term continuing resolution -- or in normal person speak, a two- or three-week extension of the current funding levels for the 25% of the federal government that runs out of money on Friday -- is pretty much the only solution at this point.

"We've run out of time to be creative, or to play games," was how one senior GOP official put it to me.

In other words, there is no time for the traditional passing of a messaging bill in one chamber, only to see it fail in the other chamber in order to spark the talks that lead to a compromise agreement.

Nor, aides say, is there time for some larger spending agreement that would lead to most or all of the remaining seven spending bills to move through Congress, with some compromise on border security money.

The options

As we've noted multiple times, Republican negotiators have worked up a myriad of options for the White House, though some are less plausible now due to the calendar.

There is the clean punt until early next year, which is considered the fail-safe option, aides say.

Republican aides have also considered continuing funding, with a boost in border security money that falls short of the President's $5 billion request, but is more than the current level of $1.3 billion.

Republicans have also discussed putting the bipartisan Senate Homeland Security Appropriations bill on the floor, which includes $1.6 billion for border security -- an option Schumer said is no longer in play due to House Democratic opposition.

Negotiators have also attempted to find ways to thread the border security needle by addressing the funding through other mechanisms or even infrastructure projects. But those options -- which, were there more time, may have made for an elegant solution for the two entrenched sides -- are simply running out of time, and perhaps more importantly, bipartisan coordination, to be firmly in play.

The reality

As laid out by Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican in leadership who will be McConnell's top deputy next Congress, when asked if there's a "break the glass" plan to avoid a shutdown:

"No Senate Republican wants to see a shutdown. Discussions are preliminary and premature, but there's -- obviously, we have no intention of having a government shutdown."

Along those lines, multiple GOP senators and House members talked to the President by phone over the weekend to urge him not to wander into a shutdown and tell him the short-term funding option was the best course of action at this point, sources tell CNN. We'll see if it resonated with the President.

One of the angles lawmakers have pitched to the President is that jamming Pelosi and House Democrats with a wall funding fight just minutes after they take control of the House would be a battle worth having -- and could, for at least a moment, short-circuit the House Democratic agenda.

The reality is, Pelosi has already made clear she'll just repeatedly move continuing resolutions and try to jam McConnell and Trump, but that's the pitch Republicans hope resonates with the President as the clock winds down.

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