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The Big Squeeze

House Republicans try to jam Senate Democrats in the latest shutdown battle.

It’s a Monday night at the Capitol, which means the government must be running out of funding in a few days. This week, the funding expires on Thursday at midnight, and the House plans (plans) to leave for the week on Wednesday. While there’s nothing we might call an “end game” in sight—Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson laughed in my face when I asked—House Republican leaders have at least selected a strategy to initiate the process.

The Republican leadership has cooked up another stopgap bill that would fund the government until March 23, the fifth such punt since September. To tempt Democrats, they’ll include another hostage they could have released months ago but wanted to hold for the right opportunity: long-overdue funding for community health centers. To satisfy conservatives and defense hawks, meanwhile, they will attach a full-year defense appropriations bill with a long-sought boost to military funding.

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House Republicans should have no trouble passing this bill with only Republican votes, and they could vote on it as soon as Tuesday. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the conservative Freedom Caucus Chairman who held out for concessions on the last stop-gap bill until the last minute, was pleased with what he saw in the members-only meeting revealing the bill. Conservatives have pushed Speaker Paul Ryan to include the full-year of defense spending on a stopgap bill since, oh, several stopgap bills ago, and now they’re finally getting it. The Freedom Caucus officially supported the plan Monday night.

Republican leaders had previously backed off such an aggressive plan because they knew it would be dead-on-arrival with Senate Democrats, about a quarter of whom Republicans would need to surmount a filibuster. Jacked-up defense spending is Democrats’ bargaining chip in budget negotiations, and they’ve refused to give it up unless Republicans deal on domestic spending.

House Republicans suspect something might be different this time. It’s not wholly absurd. Senate Democrats up for reelection did, after all, lose their nerve approximately ten seconds into the last shutdown. Some of those Senate Democrats, just a couple of weeks later, may not have the appetite to reject another spending bill that funds the military for the rest of the fiscal year. House Republicans on Monday spoke with glee about how Senate Democrats publicly claimed they voted against the last stop-gap bill because, among other things, it didn’t sufficiently fund the military. So why not take “yes” for an answer now?

“If you take [Senate Democrats] at their word, their word was what?” Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chair of the House Rules Committee, told reporters Monday night. “Well, they would have voted for it but the military was not fully funded and taken care of, and they had to vote against it. Did you hear that? Maybe ten people?”

“So we tried to listen to our colleagues in the Senate,” he deadpanned.

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Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, however, warned House Republicans on Monday afternoon that such a proposal would be a nonstarter in the Senate.

“Sending a cromnibus to the Senate, one that just funded defense and cut programs crucial to the middle class, would be barreling head-first into a dead-end,” he said.

If Senate Democrats do reject the bill, Republicans will gladly collect those votes for campaign ads claiming Democrats hate the military and then proceed with the business of keeping the government funded. That means the Senate could move to strip the full-year defense funding and send back to the House … something. It could be an extension to March 23 along with the community health center funding. Or it could just be a clean extension to March 23.

Another possibility, which still seems logistically difficult, is that this whole knot could get resolved in the next couple of days. Negotiators could finally reach a deal on the spending caps, which the Senate could tack onto its bill and fling back to the House. But actual problem-resolution in the United States Congress is rarely a winning bet.

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The quirk in all of this planning is that House Democrats scheduled their annual retreat on Maryland’s eastern shore for Wednesday through Friday. If the Senate makes changes to the House bill, that would require House Democrats to cut their retreat short and come back to vote. I asked Sessions if he envisioned buses loaded with Democratic lawmakers rolling into the Capitol on Thursday afternoon to keep the government open.

“I do,” he said.

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