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Senate passes bill to avert government shutdown, sending it to Biden to sign

By Jacob Bogage Washington Post

The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to extend funding for federal agencies, sending the bill to avert a government shutdown to President Biden’s desk just days before the weekend deadline.

The bill, which passed by an 87-11 vote, represents a marked de-escalation between congressional Democrats and new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.). Without the new spending measure, called a continuing resolution or CR, the government would have shut down just after midnight on Saturday, forcing federal workers – including military members and airport security agents – to work without pay or go on furlough on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Johnson rebuffed calls from the House GOP’s hard-right flank to include draconian spending cuts and controversial policy provisions so the bill could attract Democratic votes in the lower chamber, which passed the legislation yesterday. Those concessions were enough to win easy bipartisan support in the Senate, which is far less concerned with spending debates.

“I have good news for the American people: This Friday night, there will be no government shutdown,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday evening. “Because of bipartisan cooperation, we are keeping the government open.”

The legislation finances the government at current spending levels and staggers expiration dates for the funding.

Roughly 20% of the federal government would be financed through Jan. 19, and the remaining 80% until Feb. 2.

The structure had drawn ridicule from Senate Democrats almost up until the moment they agreed to vote for it. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Appropriations Committee, called it “the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Schumer on Tuesday called the bifurcated deadlines “goofy.”

But Wednesday night, Murray supported the measure.

“I will vote for this bill to avoid a senseless shutdown, though I don’t care for this idea of two funding deadlines and double the shutdown risk,” she said just before the vote. “But the big picture I am focused on right now is what happens next, because avoiding a shutdown is so very far from mission accomplished. We have a lot of work to do after the dust settles and before the next shutdown deadline comes up.”

The “laddered” deadlines in the bill, called a continuing resolution or CR, are designed to allow the House and Senate to pass and negotiate full-year spending bills – though the two chambers are nowhere near an agreement on those – and avoid a massive year-end spending bill called an omnibus. Conservative Republicans especially recoiled at the $1.7 trillion spending bill enacted in late December 2022.

Johnson assembled the two-step measure rapidly after winning the speaker’s gavel on Oct. 25. A band of far-right GOP rebels had ousted his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), from the speakership weeks earlier after he relied on Democratic votes to pass earlier legislation to keep the government open at the end of September.

“What Johnson is trying to do is fundamentally the correct thing, which is not jam members into a Christmas omnibus that just allows, frankly, a lot of really bad spending priorities making final package,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who voted against the bill. “I don’t like CRs as sort of a matter of principle, but I think this is a guy who’s trying to do the right thing and came into a situation where he had very little time to work with.”

The two deadlines – and the continued House GOP demands for cuts – could still mean two more standoffs that lead to at least partial government shutdowns early next year.

“It’s always ‘compared to what?’ around here. Compared to the alternatives that some of the far-right House members were pushing for, this is better,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “I would prefer to see one deadline, but this is better the alternatives, and, yes, we will be back.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he was happy to vote for the resolution if it meant placating the volatile House, which he often describes as the “kids’ table” of Congress.

“If it makes the kids happy, then what the heck?” Rounds said. “It’s Thanksgiving, and you know what? If you want to eat your dessert before you eat your turkey, that’s fine. But it will make it a bigger problem down the road.”

House Democrats claimed the package as a win – and a way to leave Washington early to celebrate the holiday.

“No spending cuts, no right-wing extreme policy changes, no government shutdown, no votes tomorrow,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Indeed, the House recessed early Wednesday and won’t return until the week after next.

Under the bill, funds would expire for military and veterans programs, agriculture and food agencies, and the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development on Jan. 19. They would expire for the State, Defense, Commerce, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments, among others, on Feb. 2.

Funding the government after those deadlines, though, may prove difficult. Archconservative deficit hawks and mainstream appropriators are worlds apart on spending levels in the House, foreshadowing problems in finding a compromise that both chambers can accept.

President Biden had agreed with McCarthy, Johnson’s predecessor, on an overall spending level for the current fiscal year during negotiations in late spring over the debt ceiling, but House Republicans now want to spend less than that.

Johnson has said he will not bring up a short-term extension of current fiscal levels again – a move that exerts pressure on both chambers to finish their appropriation bills to keep the government funded through September. Appropriators have expressed confidence that they could find consensus on several funding bills, but that requires top leaders to settle on a top-line number that lawmakers can use to compromise – something that rankles the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, which feels slighted by Johnson’s resolution.

“We want the message to be clear to the American people and to our leadership, we’re done with the failure theater here,” Freedom Caucus chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said. “We’re not we’re not going to pass bills that don’t address the problems that America faces.”

Members of the Freedom Caucus sank a rule on Wednesday to govern debate over a contentious appropriation bill funding the Justice Department and other measures in retribution for Johnson not incorporating more of their demands into the stopgap measure.

Many House Republicans saw their move as a double standard, since the conference has incorporated a number of the far-right’s spending cut demands in an effort to pass all appropriation bills and get them one step closer to negotiating with the Senate.

“It’s never easy to get work done around here. It’s a lot harder when you have people who I think are prone to emotionally immature decisions,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said.

Senate Democrats plan to take up Biden’s request for $106 billion in emergency assistance for Ukraine, Israel and humanitarian aid upon returning from Thanksgiving recess, lawmakers said, and to consider appropriations bills afterward. The House has already approved about $14 billion in aid for Israel, pairing it with cuts to the IRS that the White House and the Senate say are unacceptable, and leaving Ukraine aid out entirely.

When Congress returns, there won’t be much time before the new funding deadlines expire to pass year-long spending legislation. If those year-long laws aren’t enacted, across-the-board 1 percent spending cuts are set to kick in at the end of April as part of the debt limit deal.

Senate Democrats are hoping to use the January and February deadlines to compel lawmakers to enact a larger annual spending package. House Republicans aim to use the threat of cuts, called “sequestration,” to force Biden and Schumer to negotiate on terms more favorable to conservatives.

“I think that the 1-percent cuts are harmful. There are clearly going to be House Republicans that support that approach as their default,” Van Hollen said. “But I think you’ll find on a bipartisan basis real concern about the cuts to national security that will be implemented. That will be the debate going forward.”

But some GOP hard-liners see a broader path to secure spending cuts deeper than those in the April sequestration.

“There are gonna be multiple points of leverage,” Vance said. “There’s, of course, the president’s desired Ukraine supplemental. There will be a funding fight over the mandatory sequestrations from the Fiscal Responsibility Act. There will still be a number of leverage points over the next few months. I don’t think we’ve given up all of our leverage. The question is whether Republicans, especially House Republicans, have the willpower to run the process.”