Something's gotta give.

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When Will Boehner and McConnell Cave?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Funding for the Department of Homeland Security is about to expire, and Republicans are bickering about what to do next. It’s time for a quick course in Shutdown Showdown 101.

House Republicans passed a funding bill last month loaded with veto bait -- riders that would block President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Senate Democrats (with support from one Republican, Dean Heller of Nevada) have filibustered, not even allowing the Senate to begin work on the bill. If nothing is resolved by the end of the month, Homeland Security will technically shut down. Most of its functions are “essential” so will continue anyway, though others won't, and some employees may not be paid until the impasse ends. 

But these (partial) shutdown showdowns always end. In this case, it may be before the department is set to close, or sometime later in March or even April. And some final agreement will be supported, however reluctantly, by the Republican House speaker, the Republican Senate majority leader and the Democratic president. 

John Boehner and Mitch McConnell know that. So they also know Tea Party types will blame one or both of them as sellouts and squishes. If they had only fought longer or with sufficient grit (the demagogues will say), the Democrats would have caved, and Republicans could have claimed a complete victory.

This sets up a bunch of conflicts: Boehner and McConnell together against radicals in their conferences, and Boehner against McConnell as each maneuvers to deflect blame. 

Conflict along those lines is inherent to any must-pass bill. It’s worse for Republican leaders because conservatives in general, and the radicals in particular, consider any compromise with the Kenyan socialist in the Oval Office to be the worst that can happen, regardless of substance. 

Yet after March 1, Republicans still won’t have the votes to impose their position on Obama. The logic of shutdowns means Congress will receive more blame than the president does. It also means that if Boehner and McConnell wait until the partial shutdown begins before they cave, the decision will have a higher profile.

That’s why we never get an extended government shutdown (beyond a day or two of the deadline) unless a party really wants one.

Meanwhile, every day that immigration -- the issue causing the impasse -- is in the news is another day that Hispanic voters deepen their alliance with Democrats. And there's always the (fairly high) risk that some Republican back-bencher will worsen that damage by saying something unfortunate.

So strong incentives are in place for Boehner and McConnell to cave earlier than later -- even as they play a game of chicken over who will pay the price. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net