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Your guide to Congress' 'high stakes game of chicken'

Both Republicans and Democrats -- at least as they return to Washington Tuesday -- appear far more interested in digg...

Posted: Jan 16, 2018 2:54 PM
Updated: Jan 16, 2018 2:54 PM

Both Republicans and Democrats -- at least as they return to Washington Tuesday -- appear far more interested in digging into their respective positions than moving forward on any kind of new bipartisan deal to keep the government open.

Democrats say a deal to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that would secure their votes is already on the table, and anything short of that may lead to near-unified opposition to a short-term spending bill.

The Homeland Security secretary will address the Senate Judiciary Committee later Tuesday

Keep an eye on Democrats to see if they'll give GOP leaders the vote on a stopgap plan

Republicans say that deal has been rejected and are daring Democrats to oppose the spending bill solely over DACA. The government potentially shuts down in four days.

Bottom line: There is no new DACA deal in the works -- at least not one that can be reached in four days, GOP aides say. The plan is to keep working on the issue but focus on a short-term funding bill this week to keep the government open. The votes for that aren't there yet. This is now a high-stakes game of chicken between two parties -- one each side believes they have the upper hand in politically. That's a bad combination.

Key moment to watch: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will testify Tuesday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nielsen was in the Oval Office meeting that sparked the firestorm that has enveloped the last five days. The second-ranked Democrat on the panel? He was, too. That would be Sen. Dick Durbin. Also on the committee: Sen. Lindsey Graham, another meeting participant, and Sen. Jeff Flake, another co-author of the Gang of Six deal.

The Democratic play this week

Box in GOP leaders, according to multiple aides. Make it clear that a shutdown is possible and the only way to avoid it is to allow a vote on the group of six proposal -- one the President soundly rejected, and did so with the support, aides say, of both House and Senate GOP leaders. Gang of Six members have spent the past five days working behind the scenes to muster support for their proposal, aides say, and plan to roll out new supporters soon. The goal is to create momentum to add to their push. How many supporters the bill can boast will be something to keep a close eye on.

There were quite a few Democrats in the Senate who were very wary of how the politics would shake out in a shutdown fight driven by DACA. And even more Republicans who were more than happy to let Democrats have that fight -- with a clear thought that politically, the winds would shift hard in their favor. While there is still plenty of time for the dynamic to shift, more than one source involved with internal discussions pointed to the remarks as having a tangible effect on how senators and their top staffers were moving as this week began -- and it was toward the direction of not giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the votes to keep the government open.

All this underscores: The huge pressure facing Democratic leaders -- especially House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- from large swaths of their respective conferences to go to the mattresses when it comes to this fight.

Historically, there is typically a moment of de-escalation that comes sometime between 24 and 48 hours before the final deadline -- a "cooler heads prevail" type of scenario that ends up winning the day. On top of that, there are more than a few Democrats, especially those with tough 2018 races in red states, who have no desire to be tagged as by their opponents responsible for a shutdown. As of now, Democrats are largely waiting to see what Republicans can produce, but there is a serious undercurrent itching for a fight inside the party and its activist base, aides say.

The Republican reality

Republicans have to worry about themselves at the same time they are trying to figure out the path forward with Democrats. In other words, any drama in the Senate is moot if House Speaker Paul Ryan can't find 218 Republican votes for a short-term deal spending bill in his chamber, and at this moment, that's far from a sure thing. There are defense hawks who are very wary of voting for it without a deal in place to raise the cap on defense spending. The House Freedom Caucus is always a tough sell on short-term bills and, as CNN's Lauren Fox has reported, are once again not in the least bit sold on another one. House Republicans will have a closed door conference meeting tonight to sketch out their pathway forward.

How Republicans say it will work: The Gang of Six deal is a non-starter for Republican leaders, aides say. Full stop. That means they need to find the votes for a short term spending bill just to get through the week. The strategy is for Republicans to pass the bill on their own in the House -- still not an easy task as it currently stands -- and when it gets to the Senate, make the vote so politically painful for Democrats that just enough have to peel off to push the bill across the finish line.

As an enticement? Aides tell me there's a tentative plan to add a long-term re-authorization to the Children's Health Insurance Plan to the spending bill. That's an awfully tough issue for Democrats, in voting against a spending bill, to cede to Republicans.

Now will this all work? The amazing thing about this moment is nobody really has any idea. Republicans need to count votes. Democrats need to see if their members will really be willing to accept the political consequences of a shutdown. But as one aide told me bluntly: "We're in the midst of a high stakes game of chicken -- and nobody knows how this is going to end four days from now."

The numbers

Sixteen Democrats voted for the short-term spending bill in December -- and many of them were hammered by immigration advocates and the Democratic base for doing just that. Another two (Sens. Doug Jones and Tina Smith) weren't in the Senate for the vote. Keep a close eye on that group (and yes, it includes many of the Trump state Democrats menioned above, as well as several other Democrats with safer 2018 races). Should House Republicans have the votes for their spending bill, McConnell will need at least nine (and possibly more, depending on whether any Republicans vote against the continuing resolution or are absent due to health reasons) to vote "yes" again.

If not the Gang of Six proposal, then what?

There is the House Republican bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul, Rep. Raul Labrador and Rep. Martha McSally, but Democrats have panned the proposal and even House GOP leaders have acknowledged privately it likely would have difficulty passing the House and is a non-starter in the Senate.

Republican leaders have repeatedly pointed to a group newly formed last week -- one comprised of the second-ranked leaders in both chambers (Durbin and Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas in the Senate, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland in the House) as their preferred mechanism for a deal. But Democratic aides say that group is at its most nascent stages and far from any actual deal-making. Still, if Republicans can find the votes for a short-term spending bill, continue to keep an eye on this in the weeks ahead.

Just saying: The President, in bestowing his latest nickname on Durbin on Monday, continued his war with one of the four negotiators in the group Republican leaders keep saying is the key to any bipartisan deal.

Keep in mind: GOP leaders have been unequivocal about this, both publicly and in private conversations with the President himself: they will not move forward on any DACA bill he doesn't support and fully get behind.

What's really at stake right now?

Reminder: this is about far more than a government spending deal and enshrining DACA protections/new border security provisions into law. Also on the plate of lawmakers:

  • A deal to significantly raise the spending caps for defense and non-defense domestic spending for two years
  • A long-term reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program
  • An $80-billion-plus disaster relief bill for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico (and potentially including money to address the wild fires in California)
  • A potential package of health care provisions to address the promises made to Sen. Susan Collins in return for her vote for the tax bill

Bottom line here: Republicans accuse Democrats of slow-walking talks on all of the above as they push for a DACA resolution. That's not wrong -- aides on both sides say the talks about the other key issues had proceeded well, to a point, and Democratic aides acknowledge that as a party in the minority there are limits to their leverage. And this, precisely because of the above, is a prime moment of leverage, aides say.

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