It may look like a typical Washington farce, but a pair of Senate show votes this week might just be the first, tentative step on a long road out of the longest government shutdown in history.
The White House, the Democratic House and the Republican Senate are about to stage a theatrical effort to make it look like they are doing everything possible to restore the paychecks of 800,000 federal workers.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan enshrines President Donald Trump’s offer to swap temporary protection for some undocumented immigrants for $5.7 billion in funding for his totemic border wall.
“The opportunity to end all of this is staring us in the face … all that needs to happen is Democrats agree it is time to put the country ahead of politics, take ‘yes’ for an answer and vote to put this standoff behind us,” McConnell said Tuesday.
A rival Democratic bill that would reopen the government but not fund the wall is based on a measure that already made it through the House and was unveiled by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as he branded McConnell a “co-conspirator in the shutdown.”
But for all the noise and insults, everyone on both sides knows that the pair of Senate votes will almost certainly fail on partisan lines — and are more a chance to vent political steam than to break the gridlock. So, barring some kind of miraculous capitulation by the President or his newly empowered Democratic opponents, nothing that happens over the next few days is likely to result in the impasse being solved.
But the Senate often works in mysterious ways.
Once the choreography has played out, and each side has killed the other’s preferred solution, there’s just a chance that a behind-the-scenes huddle among key leaders in the Democratic House and Republican Senate could figure out an escape route.
At least that’s how standoffs between each end of Pennsylvania Avenue usually end. But given Trump’s impetuous nature — and his sudden decision to trigger the partial government shutdown in the first place — it’s anyone’s guess if the normal rules of the road will apply.
If the Senate’s tactic of taking two steps backward to go one forward seems absurd, a feud over the State of the Union address, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told Trump to forget while government is partially shuttered, stretches credulity even more.
The White House asked for — but was not granted — a walk-through by the House sergeant-at-arms ahead of the address, which was supposed to take place next Tuesday, seeming to suggest Trump might try to show up anyway.
Since storming into the chamber without Pelosi’s permission would ignite a constitutional imbroglio, Trump is also thinking of going out of town, to give a State of the Union address to his supporters — or somewhat short of half of the union — at a campaign-style rally.
Gas or milk?
All the political shenanigans might be old hat to connoisseurs of Washington dysfunction. But it's looking more and more preposterous to desperate federal workers, who pop up hourly on cable news with heartbreaking tales of skipping doses of vital medicines or missing rent payments.
Francis Nichols III, a pretrial court officer, told CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday that he was skimping on gas so "that I can have food and give my son his 55 cents (for) milk every day, for extra milk that he likes."
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, came up with a quote from the biblical book of Leviticus to argue that "hired hands," in this case government workers, should be paid "before the day comes to an end."
"It's unconscionable that the United States government would not pay its employees who are going to work every day, providing services to the American people and all those that visit our great country," Cox told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
But the brutal truth is that the suffering of the victims of the shutdown is not yet sufficient to change the political calculus of the key players.
It might be different if Transportation Security Administration workers at airport checkpoints walked off the job en masse, instead of calling in sick in increasing numbers to protest their empty paychecks. Or if tax refunds for millions of Americans are held up.
But despite increasing media focus on their plight, the suffering of the stricken federal workers is not yet imposing enough political pressure on either Trump or Pelosi's Democrats to force a swift end to the shutdown.
Polls show that a majority of Americans blame Trump and not Democrats for the shutdown. That means Pelosi, while she may bemoan the pain of government workers, has no compelling political reason to fold.
And Trump has already demonstrated he's more worried about alienating his base and conservative pundits than broadening his support -- so he may care less about alienating middle-of-the-road voters than other presidents did.
More than a normal shutdown
In a wider sense, the federal workforce is collateral damage in a fight for the soul of the nation.
This dispute is more than a government shutdown -- it's a potentially decisive showdown over a wall that is an existential issue for the President and a symbol of national immorality for Democrats who oppose him.
If Trump gives up now, he may never get the win that could lead to some kind of structure on the border he can christen the "wall" and use as the basis of a reelection campaign founded on promises kept from 2016.
If Democrats cave, they will be rewarding Trump's ransom demands, and will invite him to manufacture a crisis -- as he did when shutting down parts of the government before Christmas -- to enact his priorities.
A Washington Post editorial on Saturday that branded Trump as "unreliable" and said he should not be rewarded for starting the shutdown, but nevertheless called on Democrats to statesmanship to work toward a compromise, enraged progressives.
The backlash was a sign that Pelosi may face as much pressure from her own party on the shutdown as Trump does from his -- and it was noticeable that McConnell referenced the article to tweak Democrats on Tuesday.
A Democratic retreat would raise the question: If Trump gets the thing he wants most, what was the blue wave midterm election victory that delivered the House in November really for?
But the lengthening shutdown is also beginning to show Democrats just how difficult it is going to be to match up against Trump, who thinks nothing of destroying norms and playing the Washington game with no rules.
There's also not much evidence, save for a few offhand remarks in which he claimed support from federal workers and a tweet in which he called them "GREAT PATRIOTS," that the President will be moved by their tales of deprivation.
A big slump in the polls and a plunge in approval ratings that can be attributed to the shutdown could potentially give even Trump no choice but to look to his Republican congressional supporters to get him out of the hole.
But such a shift could take time.
If Democrats are to play Trump at his own game of hardball, some of the blame for a second round of missed paychecks due to afflict the government workforce on Friday may begin to cling to them, too.
That is the risk Pelosi and Schumer are beginning to assume against a President who may not think he has that much left to lose.