Sitting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office Monday evening, senior Senate Republicans had no answer to a basic question: What would President Donald Trump sign to avoid a partial government shutdown?
Attendees said there is an array of options to avoid a partial shutdown over Trump's demands for $5 billion for his border wall, but GOP lawmakers are in the dark about what the President would actually sign.
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"I don't know of a specific plan yet," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said as he left McConnell's office.
Asked if Trump would sign a short-term measure to punt the fight into January, Cornyn was still at a loss.
"I've heard that mentioned," Cornyn said of a short-term funding bill. "But I don't know if the President would sign it."
With just four days to go until funding runs out for a major section of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, Republicans are growing impatient -- and concerned -- about the lack of strategy from the White House.
GOP negotiators have worked to craft options for the White House, but at this point they have not been given a green light to move forward on any of them as the President considers his position that he must have $5 billion in border wall funding to sign off on any deal. Sources are beginning to acknowledge that, with time running out, the solution may need to be a short-term agreement to extend funding at the current levels -- or face the partial government shutdown. But, those sources say a final decision still hasn't been made -- mainly because of the President.
GOP senators say Trump seems to think that by waiting he can exert maximum pressure on Democrats and force them to cave by funding his border wall. But Republicans fear that they will suffer the political backlash if there's a shutdown over the wall.
"I really don't know, and I don't think anyone does," said one GOP senator of the President's thinking. "I think he's playing this game to the end because thinks he can get a better hand."
The senator added: "I think what Republicans don't want to see is us being blamed."
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, suggested lawmakers may receive a signal from the White House by Monday evening, though he wasn't sure what it would be -- or if it would come at all.
"He might be amenable to doing nothing. Let it tick away," Shelby, referring to Trump, told reporters after emerging from a closed-door meeting with McConnell. "I don't know."
Among the options are a short term punt to the new year that would freeze spending levels for the 25% of the federal government facing a funding deadline of December 21. In recent days negotiators have toyed with several combinations of longer term options that may incorporate boosted funding for border security through other mechanisms -- something Democrats have made clear they are likely to oppose. Another option that has been floated is continuing the funding for the Department of Homeland Security -- the bill at the center of the wall fight -- for a month, while moving forward with longer term funding for the six other unpassed appropriations measures.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on the floor Monday that he has not yet heard from the White House after last week's contentious meeting with the President, and he complained that the White House is in disarray.
With the clock ticking down, aides in both parties have grown more resigned to the reality that a short-term punt is growing more and more likely as the only option.
With fewer than five days until the government is set to partially shut down, lawmakers and staff are still attempting to figure out not just the policy side of any solution, but also the process. Traditionally spending bills start in the House, but with the chamber out of session until Wednesday night, Republicans are considering starting the process in the Senate, where there are legislative vehicles available to overcome procedural hurdles, to speed things along.
"That's possible but it's so difficult because you need consent to do everything," Cornyn told reporters of the Senate starting first. "It would be a lot easier if the House did it and left town and jammed the Senate."
Cornyn acknowledged a short-term solution was a possibility, but termed it "not the first, second or third choice." Still, the pathway forward, both on the policy and procedural grounds, remains far from set as even the most senior Republicans say they still haven't been clued into the next steps.
"It will all be revealed in the fullness of time," Cornyn told reporters. "My guess would be by Wednesday. I mean the House doesn't even come back until Wednesday. I wish I could give you direction. I don't really know what will happen."
Asked about the prospects of a shutdown, Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy told reporters, "I don't know."
He added, "If the White House has a plan, they're keeping it to themselves."
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