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News / Politics

Congress says it wants to avoid a shutdown. But the House and Senate are moving even further apart.

By LISA MASCARO and STEPHEN GROVES, LISA MASCARO and STEPHEN GROVES, Associated Press
Published: September 27, 2023, 8:42am

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Congress is starkly divided over very different paths to preventing a federal shutdown — the Senate charging ahead with a bipartisan package to temporarily fund the government but the House slogging through a longshot effort with no real chance of finishing by Saturday’s deadline.

With days remaining before a federal closure, the stakes are rising with no resolution at hand.

A shutdown would furlough millions of federal employees, leave the military without pay, disrupt air travel and cut off vital safety net services, and it would be politically punishing to lawmakers whose job it is to fund government.

President Joe Biden, who earlier this year reached a budget deal with Speaker Kevin McCarthy that became law, believes it’s up to the House Republicans to deliver.

“A deal is a deal,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “This is for them to fix.”

Late Tuesday, the Senate pushed ahead in sweeping bipartisan fashion to break the stalemate, advancing a temporary measure, called a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep government running through Nov. 17. It would maintain funding at current levels with a $6 billion boost for Ukraine and $6 billion for U.S. disaster relief, among other provisions.

It’s on track for Senate approval later this week but faces long odds in the House.

The Republican McCarthy, pushed by a hard-right flank that rejects the deal he made with Biden and is demanding steep spending cuts, showed no interest in the Senate’s bipartisan effort — or the additional money for Ukraine.

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“I think their priorities are bad,” he said about the Senate effort.

Instead, McCarthy is reviving plans for the House Republicans’ own stopgap funding measure that would slash federal spending by 8% for many agencies and attach a hardline border security measure that conservatives are demanding. He’s planning a Friday vote, but Biden, Democrats and even some Republicans have said the package is too extreme.

McCarthy is trying to goad Biden into negotiations over the border package, highlighting the record numbers of migrants crossing the Southern border with Mexico, but the speaker has little leverage at this point and the White House has downplayed the prospect of talks.

But first, McCarthy is expected to spend much of this week trying to pass some of the bills needed to fund government agencies — Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture and State and Foreign Operations.

It’s a daunting task ahead. The House Republicans advanced those bills late Tuesday after a days of setbacks and disarray, but it is not at all clear McCarthy has the votes from his hard-right flank to actually pass the four bills this week.

One of the key right-flank holdouts, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who is fighting for more cuts and opposes the funds for Ukraine, said she voted against advancing the package because the bills are headed toward defeat anyway.

“I’m trying to save everybody from wasting time,” she said.

The 79-page Senate bill would fund the government at current levels and would include the Ukraine and U.S. disaster aid that has been in jeopardy. It also includes an extension of Federal Aviation Administration provisions expiring Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate bill shows “bipartisanship can triumph over extremism.”

Schumer said, “We all know together that a government shutdown will be devastating, devastating to this country.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell appeared on board with the bipartisan Senate plan, saying, “Government shutdowns are bad news.”

The hard-right House Republicans are being egged on by Donald Trump, the front-runner in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, who has urged them to stand firm in the fight or “shut it down.”

It is setting up a split-screen later this week as House Republicans hold their first Biden impeachment inquiry hearing probing the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden. It also comes as former Trump officials are floating their own plans to slash government and the federal workforce if the former president retakes the White House.

McCarthy, who said he spoke to McConnell on Tuesday, brushed off Trump’s influence as just a negotiating tactic, even as the far-right members keep torpedoing his plans.

While their numbers are just a handful, the hard-right Republican faction holds sway because the House majority is narrow and McCarthy needs almost every vote from his side for partisan bills without Democratic support.

The speaker has given the holdouts many of their demands, but it still has not been enough as they press for more — including gutting funding for Ukraine, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Washington last week is vital to winning the war against Russia.

The hard-line Republicans want McCarthy to drop the deal he made with Biden and stick to earlier promises for spending cuts he made to them in January to win their votes for the speaker’s gavel, citing the nation’s rising debt load.

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a key Trump ally leading the right flank, said on Fox News Channel that a shutdown is not optimal but “it’s better than continuing on the current path that we are to America’s financial ruin.”

Gaetz, who has also threatened to call a vote to oust McCarthy from his job, wants Congress to do what it rarely does anymore: debate and approve each of the 12 annual bills needed to fund the various departments of government — typically a process that takes weeks, if not months.

Even if the House is able to complete its work this week on some of those bills, which is highly uncertain, they would still need to be merged with similar legislation from the Senate, another lengthy process.

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