On the brink of a shutdown, GOP senators head to White House

President Donald Trump has invited Senate Republicans to the White House on Friday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed to CNN, as the federal government is just hours away from partially shutting down.

Often in brink-of-disaster moments on Capitol Hill, there are cooler heads behind the scenes who are working on a way out. Drafting a way to thread the needle. Figuring out a pathway to pull everyone back from the edge. Quietly pulling together a deal to calm everyone and serve as the legislative silver bullet.

That is not happening now. At all.

The only way a partial shutdown doesn’t happen is for one side to cave a massive way. And there’s not a lot of hope that’s in the cards, according to aides in both parties on Capitol Hill.

To add insult to injury: As Senate Republicans headed to the White House, a source who asked not to be identified told CNN that “things are so chaotic at the White House that some Republican senators can’t get in because Secret Service didn’t even have time to clear them (or the staff who is driving them there!)”

Here’s the dynamics — and the reality

  • House Democratic leaders have no political incentive to move and agree to a single cent more in border security money. They’re even stronger in their position because the Senate has passed, unanimously, a bill to fund the government through February 8.
  • Trump has decided, with a major, major push from House Republican allies and conservative media commentators, that he’s willing to push this fight over the edge and straight into shutdown. And he’s not exactly being subtle about it.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has attempted to give the President room to find his way out of this in every way possible. He’s put his solution on the table — and passed it through the Senate. He’s more or less on the sidelines now.
  • House Republican leaders, as they demonstrated Thursday, are completely at the mercy of the President’s position here. To think, in a closed-door conference meeting Thursday morning, they were advocating their conference get behind the Senate-passed bill. By the afternoon, after meeting with the President, it was a complete non-starter.

Anything can happen on Capitol Hill, and much more complicated deals have been crafted in less than a day before, but given the above dynamics, as one senior GOP official put it to me Friday morning: “Get ready for a long shutdown.”

What to watch today

  • The Senate will vote down the House stopgap bill sometime early Friday afternoon.
  • The President’s Twitter account.

Speaking of the President’s Twitter account …

It may sound odd to someone outside of Capitol Hill, but you can’t overstate the importance of the President’s tweets to a sizable chunk of the House Republican conference. There are members who quite literally spend portions of their time trying to figure out how to garner a tweet. There are others who live in terror of a tweet. Leadership knows a single tweet can change the trajectory of a strategy or closed-door conference meeting. Even House Republicans who lost in November — and have spoken in opposition to the President — acknowledge the power.

“It’s everything to our guys,” one GOP House member told me Thursday night. “It’s kind of embarrassing when you think about it, but it’s not a vanity thing — it really matters that much back home in the districts.”

So with that in mind, tweets like this from the President make the House GOP move Thursday completely worth it to the members, even if it leads to a shutdown:

“No matter what happens today in the Senate, Republican House Members should be very proud of themselves. They flew back to Washington from all parts of the World in order to vote for Border Security and the Wall. Not one Democrat voted yes, and we won big. I am very proud of you!”

What happened in the House

Credit where it is due: House GOP leaders for more than a week claimed they could rally the votes for the President’s wall funding plan, even as many were quite skeptical of that fact — most notably Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Oval Office last week.

The House, 217-185, passed a bill to keep the government open until February 8 that included $5 billion in border wall funding and just shy of $8 billion in disaster relief funding. GOP leaders only lost eight Republicans. That’s a big show of unity for a fractured, frustrated and soon-to-be-relegated-to-the-minority group.

The biggest question here, given the fact everyone involved knows the bill has no future in the US Senate: why not do this last week when there was cushion for a back-and-forth of competing plans with the Senate?

In the words of one Senate GOP aide: “Malpractice.”

What’s next in the Senate

Before going any further, understand the baseline here: the House-passed bill is dead in the US Senate. It needs 60 votes to pass, and it will fall well short of that. It’s a matter of when that happens, not if.

All that said, here’s the process Friday:

McConnell will schedule a vote to begin debate on the House-passed bill shortly after the Senate gavels in at noon. He would only need a simply majority to take the bill up, which in normal times he could get with GOP votes alone. But these are not normal times and a number of GOP senators have said they won’t be returning for these votes. So the House-passed bill could die then and there.

If McConnell can get the simple majority to move onto the measure, he would then need 60 votes to cut off debate and move any further. He does not have 60 votes. So the measure dies then.

Again, it’s not a matter of if the House-passed bill will die in the Senate. It’s a matter of when.

What happens then

Well, Trump has a pretty good read on things, per his Twitter account:

“If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time.”

How it traditionally works

Once the House bill fails in the Senate, both parties in both chambers sit down, acknowledge what has failed and try to track a path forward. Those talks — even in the preliminary stage — haven’t started at all yet, and given how entrenched both sides are at the moment, it’s unclear when or if they will.

Staff will try to figure something out — that’s their job, and they always have options. Reality here is you can have a thousand different options, and none of them matter if the leaders aren’t willing to move.

House lawmakers have been told to be prepared for further votes on Friday, but up to this point, no caucus or conference meetings have been scheduled, so everyone is basically in wait-and-see mode at this point.

Expect more legislative action in both chambers, but whether it will just be for show or for an actual solution remains an open question.

Not a great sign

Should the government shutdown, most lawmakers I’ve spoken to say they plan to go home for the holidays anyway and just be prepared to come back if any kind of compromise is reached. That’s a problem for two reasons:

  1. They don’t see a quick resolution to this fight.
  2. It’s often lawmakers being bored and tired of staying in town that helps lead to a resolution of these things.

Department of things that won’t happen

Trump, following comments from a few Republican senators, tweeted Friday morning that McConnell should move to change the Senate rules to require just a simple majority to move forward on legislation (the so-called “nuclear option” to end the 60-vote threshold).

To make this as clear as humanly possible: This will never happen as long as McConnell is leader. Period. He’s explicitly said as much more than a dozen times on the record that I can remember on my own. Probably more than that. It’s just not a real thing. Don’t treat it as such.

This story has been updated with additional developments on Friday.

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