House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a veteran of high stakes negotiations over complicated and time-sensitive bills, and she's feeling her way around her new sparring partner across the negotiating table -- House Speaker Paul Ryan -- as they try to come to terms with a $1.1 trillion government funding bill and separate tax package.
In this showdown coming to a head this week, Pelosi holds a major advantage over Ryan, who just like his predecessor John Boehner, needs Democratic votes to pass the spending bill to avoid a shutdown.
Though both have built careers working in the House, their paths haven't crossed much, so Ryan hosted Pelosi
for a rare sit-down dinner in his Capitol office on Friday evening. Sources tell CNN the more than two-hour meeting was mostly social and the two leaders didn't get into the nitty gritty of the funding legislation while eating steak and fries
Pelosi took a subtle jab at Ryan earlier this month, telling reporters about the negotiations, "Let's be optimistic. Let's just say this is the first time for some in this process."
Senators return to the Capitol Monday, but most House members won't be back until late on Tuesday. Ryan warned House Republicans last week he wouldn't be sharing a play-by-play on the long list of policy issues on the table, arguing he needed space to get the best deal. But members' patience may be wearing thin as the Christmas holidays draw nearer.
Top congressional leaders and their staffs worked through the weekend -- mostly by phone and email -- to hash the remaining thorny items in the package that would fund the government through September. Along the same track Republicans and Democrats are hoping to hammer out a deal on a measure to extend many tax breaks for businesses and individuals, some permanently.
Both sides were aiming to reach an agreement and file a bill Monday, which would allow the House to act by Wednesday, in keeping with Ryan's pledge to House GOP members that any deal he signed onto would be public for three days before a vote.
But even with the progress aides reported over the weekend the text of the bill may not be ready until late Monday night, and a vote could shift later in the week, forcing both sides to have to pass another stopgap funding bill to prevent a shutdown.
The Senate is expected to act quickly after the House, but it's not clear how long it would take because opponents could drag out the clock if they choose to. It's possible the process could drag out into next weekend.
"Obviously, it's going to require some cooperation unless people want to spend Christmas here," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Senate GOP leader, said last week.
Policy riders and Syrian refugees
Negotiators have slowly whittled down the list of controversial policy "riders" that stalled passage of the two bills, which are expected to pass separately but are being negotiated in tandem.
The riders have been difficult to negotiate because many are hot-button issues with high partisan value to the side pushing for them. For instance, Democrats want to lift a ban on allowing the Centers for Disease Control to study the impact of gun violence and extend a special health insurance program for 9/11 first responders. Republicans want to block several EPA regulations from taking effect and lift the 40-year-old ban on exporting American crude oil.
They are also wrestling with national security issues such as whether to curb Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. and how to change the Visa Waiver Program out of concern terrorists could use it to slip into the country.
While Pelosi and Ryan settle into their new relationship, their staffs have talked constantly and traded lots of paper back and forth. Late last week Pelosi pushed for Republicans to add language lifting the ban on studying gun violence. Although the issue has come up before in debate over the spending bill Pelosi's demand for something that Republicans oppose shows that the Democratic leader feels she still has leverage to get something in return for items the GOP wants.
Asked whether the gun provision was critical for Democrats to support the omnibus spending bill, Pelosi signaled to Republicans on Friday, saying, "You want our votes? Here's a way to get them."
One of the things that drove so many House Republicans crazy about Boehner was his closed-door discussions with Pelosi. But Florida Republican Rep. Dennis Ross said the difference this time is that Ryan was up front about keeping things close to the vest to protect his negotiating position
Ross, however, warned the new speaker not to give in too much to Democrats in this first big test.
"When you are a new person and you are a new guy in this thing then trust is an element that you have to build and if you burn that bridge early than it's going to come back to haunt you later," Ross said.