With just two legislative weeks to go before the Homeland Security Department shuts down, Republicans still don't have a plan.
For the third time, Democrats blocked a funding bill that would keep the department running on Thursday, and they show no signs of letting up. If Democrats remain unwilling to accept anything less than a clean DHS bill—with no provisions blocking President Obama's executive actions on immigration—Republicans will be forced to pick from an arsenal of limited options. And of those that remain, none look good for the GOP.
If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a plan, he isn't sharing it with his members, much less the public. Sen. John Thune, McConnell's number three, said Thursday that his party's strategy had "yet to be determined" and called it "a work in progress," while Sen. Jeff Flake said simply: "We don't know yet."
Even House Speaker John Boehner, who will have to push his members to pass whatever the majority leader comes up with, hasn't been clued in on a plan. When asked whether he knows what McConnell's endgame is, Speaker Boehner paused for a moment before simply saying with a smile, "No."
"Listen, he's got a tough job over there," Boehner cracked. "God bless him and good luck."
Here are the options available to McConnell:
KEEP TRYING TO PASS THE HOUSE BILL. The third time wasn't the charm, but Senate Republicans could try for a fourth or fifth. The GOP is hopeful that public pressure on Democrats will build to pass the legislation as the deadline to fund DHS nears, forcing some to cave.
Rep. Jim Jordan, an influential leader among House conservatives, urged the Senate to keep up the pressure on vulnerable Democrats, forcing them to vote multiple times on the House-passed bill. "We just need to keep up a campaign, keep up the pressure," Jordan said.
But a growing number of Senate Republicans—fed up with watching the same legislation fail over and over again—are calling on McConnell to abandon his strategy of trying to pass the House's DHS funding bill. "We've seen the end of this movie," Sen. Jeff Flake said.
Meanwhile, Democrats have stuck together and are showing no signs of letting up.
THE COLLINS AMENDMENT. The top strategy being mulled by Senate Republicans is a plan offered by Sen. Susan Collins to strip the bill of controversial language defunding the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy from 2012. The Collins amendment, which has the support of Sen. Ted Cruz, would leave in place funding for the department and defund the president's expansion of DACA last year and his November executive action.
The thinking is that if Republicans take out the controversial provisions that would affect "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants covered under the Dream Act, they might be able to pick off key Democrats who have gone on record blasting Obama for his more recent executive actions.
"There are at least six or seven Democrats who have expressed a position that is inconsistent with a clean DHS appropriations bill and we ought to give them an opportunity to vote for the viewpoint that they exposed back in November and December," Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said.
Even some of the most ardently conservative Republicans in the House are open to the stripped down-version of their DHS funding bill. "I could handle that, I think," Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said.
But there's no evidence that Democrats will jump on board. Sen. Chuck Schumer said Thursday that he didn't believe a single Democrat would support the bill. "Let me be crystal clear: Democrats will not support that plan. That plan is dead on arrival," he said.
Sens. Angus King and Claire McCaskill, who were critical of the president's actions, said Thursday that they will not support the Collins plan or a DHS funding bill with any additional riders.
"First of all, I said I wasn't comfortable with it," McCaskill said, of Obama's executive action. "But I said the way to avoid it is to take up immigration reform and debate it. ... I will not vote for anything that's not clean."
PASS A CLEAN BILL. This is the option preferred by congressional Democrats who have been resolute in saying they won't support anything else. With Democratic support in the House and Senate, it seems likely that a clean bill can pass both chambers and earn the president's signature.
But the consequences of pursuing such a strategy for Boehner, and to a lesser extent McConnell, could be severe. Both leaders urged conservatives to hold their fire over the president's executive action on immigration at the end of last year, telling members that they'd have their chance when the DHS bill came up early in this Congress.
Another concession, and no action on what conservatives term Obama's "unconstitutional executive amnesty," could lead to an insurrection in the Republican ranks in both chambers.
SHUT IT DOWN. Both parties believe the other will earn the blame if DHS shuts down at the end of the month. But that isn't a risk leadership in either chamber—and the vast majority of members—wants to take.
The optics, most agree, of shutting down the department in the midst of the U.S. fight against ISIS and cybersecurity breaches, aren't ideal. Boehner and McConnell have both said they won't allow that to happen.
Senate Democrats say they want to avoid a shutdown as well, but also want to protect Obama from effectively shuttering DHS with his veto pen.
"We have no choice," Schumer said of Democrats' repeated filibuster over the DHS bill. "Because if the bill were to pass, be debated and passed, the president would veto it and [part of] the government would shut down. So we are not letting that happen."
Regardless of who would get blamed for a shutdown, eventually Congress would have to pass legislation to end it. And barring a complete cave by Democrats, Republicans would have the same menu of bad options.
FORCE THE HOUSE TO SEND A NEW BILL. The weeklong effort to overcome the Democratic filibuster arms McConnell with an example for House Republicans of his body's limitations.
"The magic number is 60 in the Senate and 218 in the House," says Thune. "They realize we have fought the good fight over here. This is the third cloture vote and we haven't been able to break any Democrats off. At some point, something has to give."
Yet, many senators say their hands are tied. They cannot break the Democratic filibuster, but because the DHS bill is a funding bill, senators argued at their lunch on Thursday that it's unconstitutional for them to draft their own legislation. They need the House to try again.
That would conveniently take the pressure off Senate Republicans. The spotlight would turn again to Boehner as he finds new, passable language for a funding bill, faces his conference for a vote, and volleys it back across Capitol Hill before the deadline.
Boehner doesn't seem to have much of an appetite to begin his part of the game again from scratch.
"The House fought this fight. We won this fight. Now it's time for Senate Democrats to work with Senate Republicans to stop the president's unilateral actions with regard to immigration," Boehner said.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this article