Senate Republican leaders think they can pick off enough Democrats to pass a short-term spending bill, but don't have them yet.
Democrats, meanwhile, find themselves digging in even further in opposition to not just the lack of resolution for the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but the overall short-term Republican funding strategy.
Bottom line: there are less than 48 hours until the government shuts down and, well, any one of a number of potential missteps can collapse this process.
And that was before President Donald Trump tweeted that an extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program shouldn't be included in the funding bill, a key sweetener that GOP leaders had hoped would gain enough Democratic votes in the Senate.
"CHIP should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!" Trump tweeted
Despite all the other distractions, there are only two questions that matter:
- Can House Republicans get the votes they need to pass a funding bill without Democrats?
- Can Senate Republicans pick off enough Democrats to pass a funding bill?
If the answer to those questions is yes, there won't be a government shutdown. If the answer to one or both is no, don't make plans Saturday.
That Trump tweet on CHIP
Trump's tweet on CHIP threw a wrench into negotiations, though its exact effects weren't immediately clear in the moments after its delivery.
A proposal to fund the government until mid-February unveiled by House GOP leaders earlier this week included a six-year reauthorization of CHIP, aimed at winning over key Democratic votes in the Senate (though the extension also had its fans among Republicans in both chambers). Senate GOP leaders will need possibly more than a dozen Democrats to sign on to measure to fund the government based on Senate rules requiring 60 votes to break a filibuster and advance (more on that below).
Trump's own administration on Wednesday said it supported the legislation for a continuing resolution that included CHIP funding.
Not only was the six-year extension of CHIP meant to win Democratic votes, the program is in need of more certainty.
Funding for the program expired at the end of September, and while Congress has cobbled together funding mechanisms to try and keep states covered, the money is hardly the kind of long-lasting solution that many states say they need to keep the program running and provide assurances to low-income families that their children will have health insurance. The program covers roughly 9 million children.
The issues in the House
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan met Wednesday night with Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip, to try and figure out a path forward for the restive conservative bloc. While Meadows said things were progressing, it's an open question what leadership is actually willing to give them -- or if they'll even give them anything at all. Among the issues at play:
- Specific boosts in defense funding,
- Commitment to a vote, and support, for the conservative DACA proposal introduced last week
Important note: Meadows is a very close ally of Trump's and noted he'd been speaking to him Wednesday. The White House very clearly supports the short-term spending bill.
Key House indicators
House Republicans leaders were whipping the vote throughout the day Wednesday, so they have a good idea of where they stand and what they need.
Keep an eye on House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, at his midday news conference -- he's got a pretty good poker face on these things, but if he thinks he's in a good place, it'll be pretty apparent.
If House Republicans start scheduling emergency conference meetings, or delay the vote, or start working on any new piece of short-term funding legislation, that's when things are officially going off the rails.
Again, senior GOP aides do not expect this to happen. But they also openly acknowledge there's work to be done.
Democrats are whipping "no" on the bill. This is up to Republicans -- at least until they reach a majority, then expect some Democrats to come over and join them.
One note: The current House Republican whip team is very good. It doesn't mean they'll always get the votes (think health care in March), but they are rarely, if ever, off with their count. And in the last few months they've managed to secure GOP majorities on a series of tough to pass bills, including a short-term funding bill in December.
The safety valve: House Republicans adopted a rule Wednesday night that allows them to bring any bill to the floor, at any time, through January 20. You don't adopt that rule if you think things are on a glide path. Better to be safe than sorry with the high level of uncertainty across the Capitol right now, multiple aides acknowledged.
Over in the Senate, a red flag from inside the room: Senate Democrats, according to multiple sources in the room, reached a new level of anger and frustration during the closed-door lunch Wednesday. It went beyond the lack of DACA resolution, with several senators standing in the meeting to rip how Republicans are handling the short-term spending process in general. The point from several: we have to put a stop to this.
Again, threatening to withhold the votes and actually doing it are two different thing, but according to these sources, Wednesday was a day where withholding the votes really seemed possible.
Where Democrats really stand
Senate Democratic leadership hasn't whipped the short-term funding bill vote yet -- and likely won't until it's clear House Republicans have the votes to pass the measure. Aides say several subgroups of senators have been in contact to try and game out next steps, but nothing has been locked in yet. As we've noted several times, they are in react mode, and given the fickleness of House Republicans, there is little urgency for Democrats to come out with a position until the ballgame is officially in their chamber.
Where Senate Republicans stand
Top Senate GOP aides expect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep his conference together, but the final number is far from a sure thing. Sen. Lindsey Graham has already said he's opposed. Leadership doesn't expect Sen. John McCain back this week. Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee often vote against short-term spending bills. Other Republicans are frustrated in general.
So, while McConnell has a 51-49 majority, he's going to need more than just nine Democrats to get him to the 60 vote threshold he needs to pass any spending bill. Aides are predicting he'll need between 12 and 14. That only makes the job more difficult.
Key indicators in the Senate
There are two smart places to look if you want to see the Democrats who may be in play for McConnell: Those who have tough 2018 races in states won by Trump in 2016, and the 16 who voted "yes" on the short-term spending bill in December.
That said, not every red state Democrat feels the same pressure on this and Democratic aides expect at least three, possibly more, of the 10 Trump-state Democrats up for re-election to vote against a short-term spending bill.
As to the list of those who supported the short-term bill in December? Two -- New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich -- came out in opposition to a short term funding bill Wednesday.
When will it be clear how Democrats will position themselves? Nothing will move until the House moves forward on their bill. But conversations will be happening throughout the day today, aides say. This still isn't fully sketched out, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, knows better than anyone there are members who will have to vote "yes" on what McConnell puts up - and he's given them plenty of space to do just that. The question is what the position -- and Schumer's ask -- will be of the rest of his caucus.