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Ryan’s best hope to avoid a shutdown: making friends with Pelosi

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WASHINGTON — There may be only one way for Speaker Paul Ryan to avoid a government shutdown: Ask his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, for help.

The problem is, the two don’t have much history of deal-making together. They don’t even know each other that well.

But after spending weeks trying — so far unsuccessfully — to ram through legislation to undo Democrats’ signature health-care law, Ryan will almost certainly need Pelosi’s support to keep the government open after April 28, when current funding expires.

Ryan and Pelosi have dined together only once, a well-publicized steak dinner in the speaker’s office in December 2015. Several people who know Ryan and Pelosi say they speak a few times each week, but almost always by phone and usually late in the day.

The distance between the pair, who are separated in age by three decades, also reflects how little time House Republicans have spent negotiating with Democrats in recent years.

On issues like spending, however, Republicans will need Democratic votes even in the House. That’s because a sizable group of GOP conservatives, led by the House Freedom Caucus, are expected to oppose the omnibus spending measure currently being negotiated in bipartisan, closed-door talks.

Both Democrats and Republicans say those talks are going well, but it will take the personal involvement of the leaders — particularly Ryan and Pelosi — to resolve the last few sticking points and get something over the finish line.

Cozying up to Pelosi comes with risks for Ryan, who watched his predecessor, John Boehner, resign amid a conservative backlash over some of his bipartisan deals with Democrats on spending measures.

“I cannot imagine it going that route,” said Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, a Republican member of the House Freedom Caucus, among those who say it is premature to suggest Ryan will eventually scramble for Democratic vote help.

Brat said House Republicans are holding a conference call this weekend when party leaders will discuss the shape of the spending measure and chart a course to avoid a government shutdown.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat has a warning for GOP leaders: “If you’re not going to reach across the aisle, life is only going to get more difficult, not less.”

Ryan, 47, and Pelosi, 77, have shown some ability to work together. Democrats say that Pelosi gives Ryan credit for following through last year on a promise he made to her — to get a bill passed to help Puerto Rico with its debt crisis. Ryan stuck to that pledge, although many members of his own conference opposed such a measure.

But the pair took very different paths to their current roles and don’t have much history together.

There have been no splashy and playful photos of Ryan planting big Boehner-esque pecks on Pelosi’s cheek, an occasional happening that sent the media rattling, and always left conservative critics of Boehner, 67, aghast.

Another key difference between Ryan and his predecessor that some Democrats have noticed is that Boehner was more likely to reach out to Pelosi early about what her party was looking for in legislation that needed to get passed. Boehner had an intense focus on getting a deal done, according to several of those interviewed, while Ryan is more focused on his policy goals.

Next week, Ryan will have to decide whether to immediately get behind a bipartisan bill backed by House Democrats, or first try to push through a more partisan version relying almost entirely on Republican votes.

Democrats say that private negotiations involving Republicans and Democrats in both chambers have been going well, but that President Donald Trump remains an unknown factor.

“I want to come up with an agreement. I think my colleagues want to come up with an agreement,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “Our Republican colleagues know that since they control the House, the Senate and the White House that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders and they don’t want it.”

Some Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, appear to be publicly bracing for a fight. Cruz this week told reporters he’s concerned about the spending bill, saying, “I think Chuck Schumer and the Democrats want a shutdown.”

With Congress returning next week from a two-week recess, Ryan still has to decide whether House Republicans will go along with funding a Mexican border wall that Trump wants, and whether or not to include language to defund so-called sanctuary cities that decline to enforce some immigration laws. Both are policy riders that Democrats have said would prompt them to oppose the spending bill.

Also uncertain is whether the bill will reflect any of the cuts Trump has demanded.

On Tuesday, members on both sides of the political aisle were predicting Congress will have to pass a short-term, stopgap extension of the current spending levels for another week or so to allow more time for negotiating.

But Democrats like Connolly predict Ryan ultimately will also have to come to Pelosi for vote help on a final bill. That’s because, he says, Senate Democrats would block any one-sided Republican-oriented bill.

“Paul Ryan can accept that now, or accept it later,” Connolly said.

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