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House poised to pass spending bill, but shutdown threat remains

Updated, 6:31 p.m.: The House Freedom Caucus said it would support a stop-gap funding bill to keep the government open, likely ensuring Republicans will have the votes to pass the measure on Thursday night. The proposal, however, still faces significant opposition in the Senate. Lawmakers need to pass a funding bill by midnight Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

Original story:
The possibility of a government shutdown grew dramatically Thursday as House and Senate GOP leaders struggled to round up the votes to keep the government open past midnight Friday.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) predicted that the House would pass a short-term funding measure on Thursday night. GOP leaders are gambling that rank-and-file Republicans won’t want to risk being blamed for a shutdown and will end up supporting the short-term spending bill, which would keep the government open until Feb. 16.

But on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to have a serious problem.

Senate Democrats said they’re confident they have the votes to block the stop-gap spending bill that the House is taking up, according to two Democratic senators and a senior party aide. And top Senate Republicans are openly worried about the situation as they struggle to keep their own members in the fold.

“I’m concerned that we, yeah, we may not have 60 votes in the Senate,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said Thursday morning. “And I think that’s obviously problematic.”

After a lively party lunch on Thursday, the vast majority of the Senate Democratic caucus emerged in opposition to the GOP proposal.

“I am convinced that between Republicans who publicly said they’re [voting] no and Democrats who said they’re a ‘no,’ there are not enough votes in this chamber” to pass the House plan, said a Democratic Senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter freely.

The sentiment was confirmed by a Democratic aide and another senator.

McConnell told his members in an email obtained by POLITICO that he intends to keep the chamber in session through the weekend if a shutdown occurs. Republican senators also discussed the possibility of a much shorter spending bill at a Wednesday lunch, hoping to keep the pressure on Congress to hammer out a large agreement rather than punt on contentious spending and immigration issues.

Democrats and some Republicans appear willing to back only a spending bill lasting several days, hoping the small window would kickstart negotiations on a plan to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from being deported.

“That would allow us to get a compromise, get a deal done. If we wait a month there’s little likelihood we’re in a better position than we are now,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas.), who made the case to his colleagues that funding bills for as short as one or two days are preferable to allowing the government to close.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged the possibility of a “Plan B” in case the CR fails to pass. Mulvaney, a former House member, told reporters in the Capitol that the administration is considering a shorter-term spending bill if needed.

But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) dismissed the idea of a spending plan that only lasts days. “No, we’re not going to do that,” he said.

Yet Senate Democrats — furious with Trump for his reversal last week on a bipartisan Senate plan to protect 700,000 young immigrants from deportation — have signaled a new willingness to take a harder line. A handful who previously supported short-term funding measures have declared they will not this time around, including Tom Udall and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

“This CR can’t get the job done… We’re going to have to go in a different direction,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor. Schumer didn’t declare that Democrats would vote against the bill, but he noted that momentum was clearly heading in that direction.

Schumer mocked President Donald Trump and McConnell for an “unending flow of chaos from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” including the prolonged fight over the Dreamers, which has dragged on for months now.

“The president is like Abbott, the majority leader is like Costello,” Schumer said, referring to the famous comedy duo.

Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Senate Democrats are “very unified” in opposition to the House bill. Still he could not say for sure the bill would fail in the Senate. “It’s very close at this point,” Durbin said.

As McConnell and Schumer traded barbs on the Senate floor, Democrats who voted for the previous CR in December, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, remain undecided. And Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a centrist Democrat that Republicans thought they could win over, has signaled he is opposed as well.

“It’s another patch,” Tester told reporters. “I think it’s a bad proposal. I’ll just tell you that. And it has nothing to do with DACA.”

McConnell tried to stop the bleeding in a Thursday email to his conference by warning other Senate Republicans against siding with Democrats: “This is an irresponsible position… I hope not a single Republican is inclined to join them.”

Meanwhile, House GOP spent Thursday morning doing damage control after Trump tweeted criticism of their spending bill — all while trying to whip the GOP votes needed to pass the text through their own chamber.

In a Twitter broadside that rattled Republican nerves, Trump blasted the GOP congressional leadership’s decision to attach tens of billions of dollars in funding for a popular children’s health program to the spending bill. That money is a key part of the GOP’s effort to pick up Democratic votes.

“CHIP should be part of a long term solution, not a 30 Day, or short term, extension!,” Trump said, referring to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Speaker Paul Ryan and other House GOP leaders had attached the funding to the spending package in a — so far failed — effort to win Democratic support.

Ryan spoke with Trump about the matter afterward. And by lunchtime, the White House issued a statement clarifying that the president supports passage of the stop-gap measure.

“The President supports the continuing resolution introduced in the House,” White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said in a statement. “Congress needs to do its job and provide full funding of our troops and military with a two-year budget caps deal. However, as the deal is negotiated, the President wants to ensure our military and national security are funded. He will not let it be held hostage by Democrats.”

House GOP leaders now believe the must-pass temporary spending bill will clear their chamber “by the skin of their teeth,” as one Republican leadership source put it. Ryan and his whip team used the hours before the scheduled Thursday vote to continue arm-twisting their own party to back the bill.

Ryan’s biggest problem, unsurprisingly, is the House Freedom Caucus, which is threatening to vote no unless they get a concession from leadership. Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jorden (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that they had yet to strike a deal with Ryan’s team to deliver their votes.

“What we want to do is do what’s right by the military, so we offered a couple different things,” he said. “We said, ‘Look, if you can’t [agree to] the full year [of defense spending]— which is where the conference is — you can do something smaller than that but something that is going to break this pattern.”

Conservatives, who sources say are eager to back the bill but need a small win to save face, have floated another request: A vote on a conservative immigration bill authored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte. Leaders worry the legislation could upend bipartisan talks to shield Dreamers from deportation, but rank-and-file members say that’s not reason enough to withhold a vote.

House Republicans are hopeful they can also pick up a few Democratic votes, which is why they opted to keep the six-year CHIP funding despite Trump’s tweet. But Democrats seem to have only become more emboldened after Trump’s recent comments about immigrants from Africa, El Salvador and Haiti coming from “shithole countries.”

Those remarks have hardened Democrats’ position against backing any funding bill without a deal on DACA. Despite Ryan’s efforts to entice Democrats with provisions to fund a popular children’s health insurance bill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) caucus appears unified in opposition, forcing Republicans to rely on their own members.

House GOP leaders recognize they may have to go to the floor and dare their members to vote “no.” In the meantime, Ryan used a press conference Thursday to blame Democrats for the situation on Capitol Hill.

“They continue to hold military funding hostage over unrelated issues and deadlines that don’t exist,” he said, blasting Democrats for refusing to back a long-term spending deal until DACA is fixed. “Now they’re threatening to shut down the government altogether because of these unrelated issues. It is unconscionable.”

Even if the measure passes the House Thursday, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate. With only a 51-49 margin of Republican control in that chamber — and Sen. John McCain absent due to cancer treatment —McConnell has a small margin for error and has already lost two Senate Republicans.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) have come out against the provision because they— like many defense hawks — say it cripples the military. And GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah) also may oppose the package, meaning McConnell would have to get at least 13 Senate Democrats to vote for it to avoid a shutdown.

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