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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sen. Murray tells House Republicans to ‘back off’ as Congress returns to D.C. with government shutdown looming

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., departs from a briefing for U.S. Senators at the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 7 in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – When House lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday from their annual August recess, they will face a seemingly simple but often fraught task: paying the bills to avoid a government shutdown when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

With no time to pass a yearlong spending bill before the end of the month, Congress needs to pass a short-term measure to keep funding the government at current levels until the House and Senate reconcile competing appropriations bills. But even a temporary funding bill is uncertain because a group of lawmakers on the GOP’s right flank say they won’t vote for a bill unless House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., agrees to their demands, including holding a vote to start an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said House Republicans should stick to the minimum funding levels to which McCarthy agreed in a deal with Biden in May.

“Like all of my colleagues, I have been back home with my constituents, talking about their concerns and their priorities,” she said in a weekly news conference. “And let me tell you, they do not want to spend the next month wondering if Congress is going to fulfill its most basic obligation and fund the government.”

Without that funding, each federal agency would shut down what it considers nonessential services. Past shutdowns have resulted in national parks closing, air travel being disrupted and delays in tax refunds and food safety inspections, among many other things.

While the farthest-right House Republicans have historically opposed government spending bills, the GOP’s narrow majority gives those lawmakers outsize influence. If as few as five members of his conference vote against a short-term funding bill, McCarthy would need votes from Democrats, who likely aren’t eager to help him avoid what could prove to be a politically costly debacle as the 2024 elections approach.

Meanwhile, a vote on impeachment could force Republicans into taking another uncomfortable public stand. Some far-right Republicans have called for impeaching Biden over unproven allegations related to his son Hunter’s dealings with foreign companies.

After a plea agreement fell apart, federal prosecutors on Wednesday signaled they plan to indict Hunter Biden on felony charges related to buying a gun while using drugs. But Republican senators and even some members of the House GOP’s right flank have said they have seen no evidence that President Biden has done anything that warrants an impeachment inquiry.

House Republicans from the Inland Northwest declined to directly answer questions about their stance on an impeachment vote and whether it should be linked to funding the government.

“The congresswoman knows that a government shutdown is not good for anyone,” Chavonne Ludick, a spokeswoman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, said in a statement. “As always, she will review any funding bill thoughtfully while keeping in mind the full scope of potential outcomes. At the same time, the congresswoman remains firmly committed to bringing about fiscal responsibility so the hardworking people of Eastern Washington do not continue to suffer the consequences of out-of-control government spending.”

A spokesman for Rep. Russ Fulcher said the Republican, who represents North Idaho and is a member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, would “continue to look for opportunities to constrain federal spending in each potential budget,” and trusts that the GOP committee chairmen investigating Biden “will present their findings in due time.”

“There are serious allegations against President Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, concerning their business dealings in countries like Communist China and Ukraine,” spokesman Matthew Keenan said in a statement. “The process of impeachment is a grave action undertaken by the House.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, of Sunnyside, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, expressed concern over the nation’s growing debt and support for restoring “fiscal sanity” while avoiding a shutdown. The Central Washington lawmaker, who was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, declined to share his stance on impeaching Biden.

“Our national debt is over $32.5 trillion, and a child born in America today would inherit $4.5 million over their lifetime,” he said. “For far too long, out-of-control spending has driven record-high inflation, forced small businesses to shut down, and is continuing to mortgage our children’s futures.”

Meanwhile in the Senate, Murray and her GOP counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, are on track to pass the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government. Murray and Collins have stuck to the spending numbers McCarthy and Biden agreed to, and the Washington senator said it was “particularly frustrating” that House Republicans hadn’t done the same.

“It is critically important that we fund our government without side issues or political statements, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here in the Senate,” Murray said in an interview. “The House has at this point taken a different approach, of trying to add partisan things to it or political things to it, and I urge them to back off.”

In contrast to the House Appropriations Committee, Murray said her panel passed all 12 appropriations bills with bipartisan support for the first time in five years. For the first time ever, the Senate committee’s deliberations were televised in an effort at transparency.

Murray emphasized that Congress has to pass a short-term spending bill not only to keep the government running, but also to approve more funding to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion and to refill a depleted federal disaster relief fund. Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, she emphasized the need to get aid to victims of the Gray and Oregon Road fires in Spokane County, which she said had forced members of her family and staff to evacuate.

The House returns to work Tuesday with only 11 days in session before government funding runs out.