Let the games begin.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Will McConnell or Boehner Blink First?

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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John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are playing a game of chicken this week. Against each other. Whoever veers off first will lose more True Conservative points.   

What if neither the House speaker nor the Senate majority leader budges by Friday, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security is set to expire? Then the game continues, and they both lose,  along with the rest of the Republican Party. 

To recap how it came to this: The House passed the bill financing the department -- but tacked on riders blocking Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Senate Democrats have filibustered, blocking consideration of the bill (which the president plans to veto anyway) until House Republicans remove the offending provisions.

Late Monday, it was the Senate majority leader's move. After failing for the fourth time to defeat the filibuster, McConnell introduced a stand-alone bill with the anti-immigration provisions. But he didn't indicate how he would proceed on the Homeland Security bill.

Meanwhile, several Senate Republicans (who have a  different electoral calculus from most of their House colleagues) are calling for a retreat on the DHS bill with the immigration riders. Yet they can't break the wall of Senator Ted Cruz and his allies, who, in their quest to prove they are the True Conservatives by creating differences with other Republicans, don't want any pullback. 

Why can’t Republicans just win the fight? They don't have the votes (not only the 60 to break the filibuster, but the greater numbers to override an Obama veto). And they don’t have the political leverage to make Democrats budge; in fact, the parliamentary situation is perhaps more dire for them now than it was before last week's recess. In general, shutdown showdowns favor presidents. The press will blame Republicans because they initiated the fight (with the immigration riders), they provoked the shutdowns of 1995 and 2013, and because Congress is always unpopular. 

Some Republicans are saying a temporary shutdown of one department won’t matter much.  This spin doesn’t make much sense, because if that's the case, then Democrats suffer no consequences for continuing to resist Republican demands. 

There's nothing wrong with brinkmanship. Sometimes it takes a deadline to get things done, and when both sides are bargaining over real changes in policy, it's often sensible to hold off to the end. Yet in this case, with no bargaining going on at all and with no chance of anything short of complete capitulation by one side or the other, brinkmanship seems pointless. 

Government shutdowns don’t happen by accident. But miscalculations are always possible, and McConnell hasn’t endured something like this before in his current position. It's a good test for him -- and perhaps a relatively low-stakes dry run for battles over the debt limit and future funding bills later this year.

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