A chaotic week on Capitol Hill yielded no serious progress as Congress stares down a spending deadline at the end of the month with lawmakers acknowledging a government shutdown is not only possible at this point, but may soon be inevitable.
That’s particularly true if the political dynamics at play between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the hardliners in his conference and the US Senate don’t change fast.
“How do we not?” asked Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida. “What pathway doesn’t take us to a shutdown?”
Asked if he could prevent a shutdown at this point, Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a swing district in Nebraska, said, “If I listen to what is going on, no, but I am going to keep the government open. It’s a mistake to shut down the government. “
The Senate, which has bipartisan agreement on a series of spending bills passed out of committee, faced a procedural snag on the floor Thursday, and House Republicans are still struggling to find consensus among themselves on a defense spending bill and have turned their focus to trying to pass a short-term funding bill with just GOP votes. Meanwhile, McCarthy faces threats for his ouster if he brings a short-term spending bill to the floor that doesn’t acquiesce to demands from his right flank.
Lawmakers have just two weeks to find a way forward.
“It appears likely,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said of a shutdown. “I came into Congress during the last shutdown. What is really different this time is we have members of Congress actively promoting a shutdown. They think it is a good job. They don’t seem to think the pain it inflicts on the American people and the economy is a problem.”
All sides acknowledge there won’t be enough time before the September 30 deadline for either chamber to pass all 12 appropriations bills and avert a government shutdown. Instead, the House and Senate will have to find a short-term fix to allow them more time to negotiate, but that fight is shaping up to be just as precarious. Senate Democrats have telegraphed they won’t accept anything less than a bill at current funding levels while Republicans are swiftly trying to find consensus on a short-term continuing resolution that includes spending cuts and border security.
On a panel before the Pray, Vote, Stand Summit, conservative Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who has emerged as a chief negotiator in talks with fellow Republicans, told the audience that a shutdown was likely “inevitable” as he turned the blame on the Senate and White House.
“We are going to have to centralize the fight,” he said. “When you have a shutdown, which there is almost inevitably going to be because the Senate and the White House has no interest in stepping up and defending you all and your interests or this country’s interests … we have to hold the line.”
House leaders had to pull plans to vote on a defense spending bill this week after they couldn’t find a path forward to pass even a procedural step, launching McCarthy to implore his conference in a private meeting Thursday to pass something to strengthen their negotiating hand in talks with the US Senate. On Thursday night, talks were well underway between members of the House Freedom Caucus and Main Street Caucus, another Republican faction in the House, to see if they might be able to find a path forward.
McCarthy is working with a razor-thin margin and it’s only getting smaller. On Friday, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, retired. A special election for his seat won’t be held until after the spending deadline.
“If 99% of Republicans agree, we are still a little short,” Roy said referencing McCarthy’s margin. “That is the reality.”
But even if Republicans could find a deal that would satisfy all concerns of their party, it would be rejected from the US Senate where lawmakers want to pass spending bills at a higher level.
The entire exercise looked avoidable months ago. In the wake of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, White House and House Republican negotiators had agreed on funding levels that could have been a roadmap to quickly hammering out a spending deal between the two chambers and ushering in a quiet fall. But hardliners rebelled and Republicans in the House pushed their bills out of committee at far lower spending levels than what had been agreed to. Members want those bills to be cut even more now. Meanwhile, the US Senate bills include $8 billion in additional funding for defense and $5.7 billion more for non-defense emergency spending.
“The Senate will at every turn spend more when left to their own devices. We have to check them,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina who helped to negotiate the debt ceiling deal with the White Houe. “At this point, if they don’t want to adhere to the spending numbers, we are going to have a hell of a nasty fall.”
In a floor speech on Thursday afternoon, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas attacked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for not leaving enough time in the fiscal calendar to bring all 12 spending bills to the floor before October 1.
“There’s no time for us to finish this process before the end of the fiscal year, which is actually part of the majority leader’s plan,” Cornyn said of the Democrat from New York.
Still, many GOP and Democratic senators alike say that if there is a government shutdown, they aren’t blaming the other side of the aisle, they are blaming House Republicans.
Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told CNN, “It’s up to the House.”
“Will hardline Republicans want to continue the negotiations with the government open, or do some people see the government closing as a political advantage?” he asked. “All of those are obviously the considerations.”
Democratic senators also worry a shutdown could be hard to stop at this point.
“I’m very concerned. I don’t hear anything from Speaker McCarthy to give me peace of mind when it comes to this,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. “I’m afraid that he has a tough time controlling his own caucus.”
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia agreed, telling reporters he would be less concerned, “If the House leadership was a little more focused on governing, than kind of playing politics.”
Schumer has called on House Republicans to reject demands for spending cuts from the far-right of their conference in order to prevent a shutdown.
“Both parties in both chambers are going to have to work together in a bipartisan way to avoid a shutdown. That is obvious. It may not be obvious to 30 crazy people in the far right of the Republican House, but it’s obvious to everyone else,” he said on Tuesday. “They can’t just have it their way. I implore my Republican colleagues to follow our lead, recognize that time is short to keep the government open. The only way to avoid a shutdown is through bipartisanship.”