Negotiating an end to the government shutdown: What’s plan B?

Negotiating an end to the government shutdown: What’s plan B?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump 

Lawmakers and aides are looking at the looming failure Thursday of competing proposals to reopen the government as the most positive thing to happen in 34 days of government shutdown morass. Yes, that’s an indication of how bad things still are between the two sides, but as one GOP official put it to CNN: “We’re all desperate to be optimistic about anything at this point, so I’ll take it.”

The Senate is set to vote on two proposals Thursday — one that gives President Donald Trump funding for his border wall and also includes temporary protections for some immigrants covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, disaster aid funding and all seven unpassed appropriations bills agreed to by the bipartisan House/Senate conference. The second is the House-passed bill that would reopen the federal government through early February, plus $12.1 billion in disaster aid.

The Senate proposals will fail, barring some sudden and unexpected shift. It’s the “OK, now what?” that hasn’t been answered yet, even if there is some belief the failure will open the door to negotiations. “What’s plan B?” CNN asked a senator Wednesday: “TBD.”

What to watch

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press conference at 10:45 a.m. ET.

Senate holds two procedural votes on proposals to reopen the government at 2:30 p.m.

What to read

CNN’s Clare Foran has an excellent piece teeing up the day here.

What the SOTU spat actually means

Very little. It’s tough to overstate how frustrated rank-and-file members were with the whole exchange. There was clearly a strategy behind the moves by both sides, and perhaps that will provide some advantage in a one-on-one context. But as one Democratic lawmaker told CNN shortly after the President’s tweet late Wednesday night: “Thank God it’s over.”

Good indicator of where things actually stand

The House will hold its final votes of the week before the Senate even starts voting on Thursday. The chamber is scheduled to return on Monday.

The Senate votes

The Senate will take its first floor votes on anything to address the government shutdown since the impasse began a month ago. That in and of itself is somewhat amazing. But it underscores that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is now off the sidelines after weeks of insisting it was up to the President and Democratic leaders to reach a deal. McConnell reached the conclusion last week amid the State of the Union kerfuffle that their dynamic would never lead to a deal. Neither, it should be noted, will the President’s proposal that will get a vote Thursday. McConnell’s next move, now that he’s engaged, will be a central piece of whatever happens next.

As we’ve noted repeatedly, the idea of showing something will fail to create actual space for talks is one that has been effective in the past — and remains the stated goal, primarily among Republicans. As Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who has been working with the bipartisan “gang” of senators that has continued discussions on a pathway out — so far unsuccessfully — said: “My hope is that even if the proposal cannot pass with a 60-vote majority, which unfortunately seems likely right now, that it will spark good-faith negotiations to enable us to quickly end the government shutdown and move forward.”

How the votes will work

The Senate will hold two votes — both procedural, to end debate (cloture) — to advance amendments on the floor. Both votes are subject to a 60-vote threshold.

The two amendments — and thus the two votes — are

1. Trump/the Senate GOP proposal

$5.7 billion for border wall Temporary (3 year) DACA protections, only for current enrollees 3-year extension of Temporary Protected Status Asylum law changes $12.7 billion in disaster aid All seven unpassed appropriations bills, as agreed to by the bipartisan House/Senate conference earlier this year (The Department of Homeland Security appropriation bill wasn’t fully agreed to, but it will contain the agreed-upon topline numbers.)

2. The House-passed bill that would re-open the shuttered 25% of the federal government through February 8, plus $12.1 billion in disaster aid

What to watch on the floor

While not expected to advance, the votes do serve as a test of each party’s unity as the shutdown bite grows deeper — and frustration among rank-and-file senators grows more acute. Democrats believe at most two of their senators will support Trump’s proposal, and a message that there is “value in staying unified” has been made clear to the caucus, an aide says.

On the Republicans side, a GOP senator told CNN Wednesday that leadership has made clear the conference needs to stick together against the Democrat proposal. A handful of Republicans are expected to vote with the Democrats — Sen. Susan Collins told Politico she’d vote for both proposals — but who, and how many, will be an interesting piece of this to watch.

In other words, if both parties keep most or all of their members locked in behind their proposals, it underscores just how far away people are from a deal. If more cracks than expected start to show on either side, while it would hardly mark a breakthrough, it certainly would be an interesting tell.

Expect things to break mostly along party lines, with a few moderate (or politically vulnerable) senators crossing over, aides say. Beyond that, “it’s red team vs. blue team at this point,” one senator told CNN Wednesday.

Speaking of the red team

The Democratic proposal that will receive a procedural vote is essentially the same thing the Senate passed unanimously in December. And now it will likely fail because of the President’s opposition. That, more than anything else, underscores the reality of the Republican position in these talks. Yes, Republicans make clear, they see the polling, though view blame far more directed at the President than Republicans in Congress. But they also see Republican support for the President staying mostly, though not entirely, steady.

“If President Trump weren’t opposed to it, there’d be nothing controversial about the second vote and just about every Republican” would vote for it, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor Wednesday. He’s not wrong. But the President is opposed to the Democratic proposal. So it will fail.

What comes next?

House Democratic leaders and top committee chairs have been drafting a border security proposal over the last few days, one that could be released as soon as Thursday. It’s something several top Democrats pointed to on Wednesday, including Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, who made clear it could consist of more than $5 billion. That piqued the interest of Republicans in both chambers and the White House, officials said, who were intrigued about what it could signal as a shift or outline for future deal.

While it was still being drafted throughout Wednesday, there are two key points to remember, according to Democratic aides: any proposal would not include wall funding, and it would be contingent on the government reopening first.

Putting anything on paper is helpful, one GOP aide said, but Democratic support for border security elements like infrastructure and modernization at ports of entry, increased immigration court judges and enhanced technology is not technically new. So while it’s hardly a breakthrough, at this point any action of any kind is seen as positive.

The value of the proposal

House Democrats have stayed unified, but there’s no question portions of the caucus have been restive. Two letters were sent from more moderate members on Wednesday, both urging an end to the shutdown and negotiations after the government to reopen. That doesn’t undercut Pelosi’s position, but underscores that they are looking to show they want a pathway out. A full border security proposal helps with that position.

Pelosi’s baseline

The core of the Democratic strategy, underscored in Pelosi’s remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Wednesday, is that they cannot move off the baseline that the government must be reopened before negotiations can begin: “There is serious and justified concern that this president will shut down the government every time he doesn’t get his way legislatively,” she said.

Until the above baseline changes for Democratic leaders, or until Trump agrees to reopen the government before he receives wall funding, the gulf remains too wide to bridge through policy compromises or proposals. It’s the fundamental reality at the core of the shutdown — and why it’s been so impossible to end.

As to House Democrats

The House on Wednesday passed its 10th proposal to open all or part of the shuttered 25% of the government — this time a package of six full-year funding bills as negotiated by the House and Senate before the shutdown. The White House issued a veto threat. The Republican-led Senate has no plans to take up the proposal.

The House will pass on Thursday a short-term bill to reopen DHS until February 28.