7 min read

Good news and bad news on a government shutdown

The clock is ticking for lawmakers to rally behind a short-term government funding bill.
Good news and bad news on a government shutdown
(Image by DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, August 22, 2023. The 2024 elections are 441 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

The House and Senate have both been on recess since the end of July, and neither chamber is scheduled to return to Washington until next month.

By the time both chambers reconvene, it will be September 12 — less than three weeks before the government funding deadline on September 30. As I explained last month, that’s the date by which the government will shut down if Congress hasn’t passed either all 12 appropriations bills or a continuing resolution (CR), which temporarily keeps the government running at its current funding levels.

Only one of this year’s 12 appropriations bills has passed either chamber of Congress, so a CR is really the only tenable option to keep the government open past September 30. With such little running room before the deadline, that will create a post-recess sprint to get a CR approved by the House and Senate and over to President Biden’s desk.

That means, even though lawmakers are still on break, it’s important to start gaming out the feasibility of passing a CR now, since so many important services hang in the balance. (In a government shutdown, Medicare and Social Security continue but many other government benefits stop; food and environmental inspections are dramatically reduced; national parks often close; passport applications slow down; IRS tax assistance is minimal; and government-funded scientific research is upended.)

Over the recess, there have been several developments in the spending wars — with both good news and bad news for anyone hoping to avoid a government shutdown.

The good news

All four congressional leaders have made statements supportive of passing a CR before September 30. This may sound like the bare minimum, but it means the two party leaderships are at least on the same page and share a commitment to working together on a short-term funding bill — which is never a guarantee in Washington.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) reportedly endorsed a CR in a conference call with House Republicans last week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) later confirmed that he and McCarthy agreed on the need for a CR during a one-on-one meeting before the August recess, which Schumer called a “good sign.” (Frankly, that the two leaders sat down together at all should be taken as a positive development.)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) are on board the CR train too. “We will no doubt have to do what we call a ‘continuing resolution’ when we get back in September to fund the government for a few more months as we try to work out the 12 appropriations bills,” McConnell said last week.

The bad news

McCarthy may be supporting a CR, but his right flank is not. The House Freedom Caucus, the group of around 45 ultra-conservative House Republicans, issued a statement yesterday ruling out support for a “clean” CR (one that continues funding the government at its current levels, without making any changes).

“We refuse to support any such measure that continues Democrats’ bloated COVID-era spending and simultaneously fails to force the Biden administration to follow the law and fulfill its most basic responsibilities,” the statement said.

The Freedom Caucus laid out three elements that they said must be part of any continuing resolution for it to receive their support:

  • New border restrictions to “cease the unchecked flow of illegal migrants, combat the evils of human trafficking, and stop the flood of dangerous fentanyl into our communities.”
  • Steps to “address the unprecedented weaponization of the Justice Department and FBI.”
  • An end to the “cancerous woke policies in the Pentagon undermining our military’s core warfighting mission.”

Needless to say, a CR will not pass the Democratic-led Senate with any of those provisions. This leaves McCarthy in an jam: he either has to push through a clean CR and rely on Democratic support to pass it in the House, or he can propose a CR according to the Freedom Caucus’ specifications and ensure a government shutdown on his watch.

While Option 1 — put up a clean CR, let the Freedom Caucus vote “no,” and pass it with Democratic votes — may seem like the easiest way to avoid a shutdown, it would lead McCarthy down a fraught path. The speaker still has scars to show from the last time he pulled a similar maneuver, when he avoided a debt limit crisis by raising the debt ceiling with a bill that received more Democratic than Republican support in the House.

After that happened, right-wing members launched a full-on rebellion, refusing to allow any bills to advance on the House floor for about a week. If McCarthy relies again on Democratic votes to pass a critical fiscal package, he could be faced with a similar blockade — or, worse, a vote to oust him as speaker.

Not for the first time, it appears that House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) — his own deputy — isn’t making life any easier for McCarthy. Scalise told Politico this morning that he agrees with the conservative push to tie language on border security to the spending process.

The House GOP No. 2 also echoed the Freedom Caucus in saying that he wasn’t too worried about the possibility that such a push might shut down the government. “I’m more concerned about us not getting control over spending and not putting limits on the damage that the Biden administration is doing to our country,” Scalise said.

McCarthy and Scalise have had a shaky relationship for years, as Scalise has long been seen as positioning himself to take over the House GOP if the opportunity presents itself, before and since McCarthy asceneded to the speakership. During the debt ceiling negotiations, McCarthy reportedly told allies that he couldn’t trust Scalise.

The Louisianan planting a flag with the Freedom Caucus as the CR negotiations heat up is a notable early sign — that McCarthy may face pressure to join, or risk ceding the speaker’s gavel to his deputy if he doesn’t.

What else to watch

Another fiscal fight that will be brewing when Congress returns to Washington: on top of the funds that come out of the 12 appropriations bills, the White House has also requested $40.1 billion in additional government spending. (This is known as “supplemental” spending, and its passage takes place outside the realm of the normal appropriations process.)

If the Biden team has its way, $24.1 billion of that request would go towards Ukraine aid, $12 billion would go towards disaster relief, and $4 billion would go towards border security.

This will be a very heavy lift in Congress, especially the Ukraine portion. “We will oppose any blank check for Ukraine in any supplemental approprations bill,” the Freedom Caucus warned in its statement yesterday.

Like the potential McCarthy vs. Scalise division on approproriations, the fight over the Ukraine supplemental will be revealing of who has the upper hand in today’s Republican Party. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported last week, McConnell has made something of a last stand out of the fight for Ukraine spending, seeking to leave behind a GOP that is more in line with the Reagan model internationally than the Trump model.

McCarthy has not gone as far as many House Republicans in ruling out future aid. for Kyiv, but — at a time when he is already facing a fight over the must-pass government funding bill — it is unlikely he will risk the political capital to join McConnell in his pro-Ukraine crusade.

More news to know.

The Republican debate stage is set. The RNC announced last night that eight candidates have qualified to join the Trump-less melee in Milwaukee: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreuner Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Three lower-tier candidates — Miami mayor Francis Suarez, businessman Perry Johnson, and radio host Larry Elder — had also claimed to meet the requiremenets, but the RNC said their qualifying polls didn’t count. Elder said this morning that he plans to sue the RNC, accusing the committee of running a “rigged” process.

Trump will surrender to Georgia authorities on Thursday, the day after the debate, he announced yesterday. Trump’s lawyers signed an agreement Monday that sets the former president’s bond — the amount of money a defendant must pay to obtain pre-trial release from jail after being arrested — at $200,000. (Under Georgia law, Trump will only have to pay about 10% of that amount up front.)

The bond agreement also prohibits Trump from making “direct or indirect” threats against individuals involved in the case or from communicating with any of his co-defendants except through their lawyers. Scott Graham Hall, a Georgia bail bondsman who was allegedly involved in the breach of local voting equipment, became the first of Trump’s 18 co-defendants to turn himself in when he was booked at Fulton County jail this morning.  

A few more headlines...

  • Tom Steyer could face a $20,000 fine for renting his Lake Tahoe mansion to the Biden family without a permit.
  • Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) announced plans to challenge Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) this morning.
  • House Republicans issued subpoenas Monday to IRS and FBI officials involved in the investigation of Hunter Biden.

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden is on vacation in Lake Tahoe and has nothing on his public schedule. VP Harris is in Washington and has nothing on her public schedule.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are on recess.

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