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The 2018 government shutdown showdown, explained in fewer than 500 words

Congress has a looming midnight deadline, and tensions are mounting.

Dole Congressional Gold Medal Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Congress has a looming midnight deadline to keep the government open, but there still aren’t enough senators willing to vote for a month-long short-term spending bill to avert a federal shutdown.

If the government shuts down, a lot of “nonessential” government activities would cease — from federally funded research to operations of national parks — come Saturday, January 20. In a midterm election year, a shutdown could also have serious political consequences for both Republicans and Democrats, depending on who gets the blame.

The House passed a short-term spending measure — a continuing resolution (CR) — Thursday that would extend the shutdown deadline to February 16, fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, and suspend some Obamacare taxes. But the Senate needs to pass a 60-vote threshold, and both Democrats and Republicans say they are fed up with short-term spending deals.

The impasse in the Senate comes down to a deepening frustration over the state of immigration negotiations and longer-term budget talks. Republicans have punted on finding a legislative fix for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program since September, when the Trump administration announced it would end the program by March 5. They’ve also kicked down budget negotiations, instead passing three short-term spending deals since October 1.

Trump spun immigration negotiations into chaos last week, insisting first that he was on board with a bipartisan proposal to fix the program and then turning on that support by Thursday, reportedly calling some countries “shitholes.”

Will the government actually shut down? Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney put the odds at 50-50. There is still a long-shot idea: Democrats have offered to support a “short-short-term” CR, or a bill that would keep the government funded for a few more days to wrap DACA negotiations. The proposal is gaining some traction.

At this point, three things could happen Friday:

1) The government shuts down. Unless something changes, this is where Congress is headed.

2) The government stays open, without a deal on immigration. In this scenario, Congress passes some kind of short-term spending bill (either what the House passed or something shorter) and keeps the government open for now — kicking the can down the road until they can reach an agreement.

3) The government stays open, with some kind of deal on immigration. This scenario would be a major legislative feat at this point. It’s highly unlikely Congress will have an actual immigration bill by Friday, but it’s possible leadership can come to some kind of agreement.

In any scenario, Congress isn’t going to pass a permanent spending deal for 2018 this week because the parties still haven’t agreed on new budget caps, which put a hard upper limit on spending, for defense and domestic programs. Without budget caps, any massive spending bill risks triggering a sequester — across-the-board cuts to domestic and military spending.

This is the shutdown showdown.