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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Mike Johnson

Your Big Four meeting cheat sheet

There are just four days until a partial government shutdown, and there’s still no agreement yet on the FY 2024 spending bills. The House is out of session until Wednesday. The Senate came back to town last night. And President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are meeting with the “Big Four” congressional leaders this morning at the White House.

This group — Speaker Mike Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, plus Biden and Harris — represents the key decision-making nucleus of the federal government. It’s on them to avert a full or partial government shutdown that no one wants or needs.

Biden, Schumer, McConnell and even Jeffries have been in this position before. Johnson, of course, hasn’t. It doesn’t matter much that Johnson and Biden don’t have a relationship. At this stage, averting a shutdown will be a matter of political fortitude rather than being steeped in Washington deal-making experience.

Let’s start with the basics. It’s Tuesday and we still haven’t seen any paper outlining the four-bill spending package that needs to pass by Friday at midnight. Any legislation must be released today in order for House Republican leadership to adhere to its three-day rule and still avert a shutdown Friday at midnight without passing a CR. Although a short-term stopgap bill looks more likely with each passing moment.

Hardline House GOP conservatives want to pass a full-year CR and they’re putting a lot of pressure on Johnson. Under the Fiscal Responsibility Act, federal spending is slashed if all 12 appropriations bills aren’t signed into law by the end of April. Furthermore, conservatives feel as if Johnson’s House Republican Conference is whiffing at every opportunity for policy wins. Read this thread from Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) to get a sense of how hardliners feel.

So while there are no major disagreements on policy that would traditionally lead to a shutdown, there’s a nagging feeling in the House GOP that Johnson hasn’t fought hard enough.

Schumer and McConnell. While far apart ideologically, the two Senate leaders are aligned here. They both want to keep the government open, and nearly five months into FY 2024, they want to bring this glacially slow spending fight to a close.

On the Senate floor, McConnell said Hill leaders need to “row in the same direction — toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.” That’s as close to prodding Johnson as the Senate GOP leader will get in public. Others were more blunt.

“It’s just a misery march,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), an appropriator, lamented. “We ought to do our job and pass our bills… I can’t figure them out over there.”

Johnson. The Louisiana Republican is playing out a horrible hand that’s not entirely of his making. He has a 219-seat majority with a group of roughly 100-110 lawmakers who want to govern in a traditional manner.

Johnson has never been part of a high-stakes negotiation. He’s drawn illogical lines in the sand — no more CRs — and then had to back down. He’s refused to take positions on big issues. Other top House Republicans are growing tired of him and have no faith in his leadership.

But we’re beginning to see Johnson edge closer to reality. He told House Republicans on a conference call Friday that the compromise he’s negotiating with the rest of the Big Four doesn’t include any major policy wins for the GOP. That’s true.

Johnson’s staff is quite perturbed that they’re already getting the blame in advance of a shutdown. They note that Democrats are demanding policy changes and additional money for their programs as well. Yet Johnson has close to zero leverage here. His House Republican Conference cannot pass a single thing without Democratic help.

Johnson is going to have a choice to make soon. He can put the compromise bill or package on the floor and pass it with Democratic votes under suspension of the rules, a move that could cost him his job. He can pass another stopgap bill to avert a shutdown. Or Johnson can allow the government to shut down, which also may cost him his job.

Jeffries. The New York Democrat is in no mood to bail Johnson out. Jeffries understands that he holds a lot of cards right now because the vast majority of his House Democratic Caucus is going to vote for any funding package.

So there’s no reason for Jeffries to give Johnson anything at all. All Jeffries has to do is wait for the negotiated package to surface and voice support for it.

Biden. Sagging in the polls with his political future murky as ever, Biden would be the clear winner of a funding lapse. Biden is trying to make the case that Republicans, with former President Donald Trump as their likely nominee, can’t govern. A shutdown would help that case.

Remember this: The funding deadline this week is the easy one. Thanks to Johnson, the March 8 deadline includes Defense, Homeland Security and Labor-HHS — roughly 75% of federal spending. That’s the real test.

— Jake Sherman, Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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