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WASHINGTON - Congress has until midnight on April 28 to pass a spending bill to keep the government open through September or face a government shutdown. And budget experts we spoke to think it could go either way. Congress has its usual red lines that make a deal that will please a majority of both chambers nearly impossible. But this time, the wild card on whether there will be a shutdown is President Donald Trump.
To better understand why, let's run down three scenarios for how this next week could play out:
--The Crisis Averted Scenario
It's entirely possible that Congress returns on Monday from its two-week break and comes up with a spending plan that not everyone likes, but that enough people in both parties can live with to form a majority in both chambers.
Maybe it funds Planned Parenthood like Democrats want, but it also cuts domestic spending like Republicans want.
Congress passes it in time, President Trump willingly signs it, and a government shutdown is averted.
--The Crisis Scenario, version 1
Congress comes back to town Monday, comes up with a spending bill that both Democrats and hard-right Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus loathe (it increases domestic spending too much and defense not enough, it doesn't do enough for Obamacare or it cuts Obamacare too much, and on and on and on). Congress can't pass something in time, and the government shuts down.
(Or they pass a bill extending government funding - and the shutdown threat - by another week.)
--The Crisis Scenario, version 2
Normally we'd stop there. But it's also entirely possible that Congress comes back Monday, comes up with a spending bill that can pass both chambers, and then President Trump says he won't support it because it doesn't have enough of his priorities (funding for his U.S.-Mexico border wall being top of the list). We're back to version 1 of The Crisis Scenario, since Democrats refuse to fund the wall, and conservative Republicans are wary of how much it will cost.
A majority of Congress won't support the bill, and the government is shut down.
The dynamics in the first two scenarios aren't new: Torn between increasingly stubborn, polarized parties, Congress has faced a shutdown threat at least once or twice a year for the past couple of years. It's managed to hobble along, either by passing short-term spending bills that fund the government at current levels for a few months, or by finding a bipartisan compromise everyone can live with for a year.
It's the third scenario - what President Trump wants - that's a totally new dynamic. And the unpredictability of what Trump wants is throwing many of our budget experts' predictions from "probably no shutdown this time" to "anything could happen."
We are in volatile times for the Trump administration. The day of the budget deadline, April 29, marks his first 100 days. And as the president tacitly acknowledged in a tweet Friday, he really hasn't had a win yet. This budget could be his first last chance to score a win.
Trump tweeted: No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!
That could help explain why, in an interview Thursday with the Associated Press, Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, raised eyebrows in Washington when he said: "We want wall funding. We want agents. Those are our priorities," Mulvaney said. "We know there are a lot of people on the Hill, especially in the Democratic Party, who don't like the wall, but they lost the election. And the president should, I think, at least have the opportunity to fund one of his highest priorities in the first funding bill under his administration."
The president certainly has every right to try to get his priorities into a spending bill. It's just not clear that what he wants is something that can pass a majority of Congress.
"It's going to come down to what Trump wants," said nonpartisan budget expert Stan Collender. "And it's not clear that he knows what he wants."
Maya MacGuineas with the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said she thinks Republicans so badly want to avoid a shutdown on their watch that neither Trump nor the House Freedom Caucus will take a stand that risks one - especially after they failed to repeal Obamacare just a few weeks ago.
"Anybody could cause enough problems to create a shutdown," she said, "and the chances of hurting them are high enough that cooler heads will prevail."
But Trump's definition of what constitutes a political victory on the budget battle might be totally different from what Congress is used to, said Steve Bell, a former Senate GOP budget expert now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. Trump doesn't see himself as a creature of Washington, and so he might think he has much less to lose by what happens in Washington.
"I don't think he fears a government shutdown as much as Republican leadership does, because he can point to Congress and say: 'See? That's what's wrong. Congress is what's wrong,'" Bell said.
Collender agrees that for all of Congress's unpredictability around budget time, Trump is the most unpredictable player right now.
"The big question is: What will Trump accept as a win?" Collender said. "And there's just no way to know. Is shutting down the government a win for him? It's possible."
And that's why, for now, the sum of our experts' shutdown predictions for next week is: Maybe not, but also maybe.