The government funding standoff gripping Washington ahead of Friday’s shutdown deadline is one of the first indicators of the coming shift in power dynamics that will return the capital to a governing cold war between congressional Republicans and a Democratic White House.
An omnibus spending bill that would avert the closure of the federal government would be one of the last acts of unified Democratic political control of Washington. But it’s being pushed to the last minute as the routine disputes between Republicans and Democrats over spending priorities are exacerbated by conservative Republicans who want to hold key decisions until the new Congress in January, when they hope to use their new House majority to cut spending.
It’s an early glimpse of the paralysis that could result from divided government with neither side having the power to fully deliver on promises they made to voters in last month’s midterm elections, when Republicans won the House and Democrats retained control of the Senate.
Some of these clashes, like disputes over funding social programs and the need to raise the government’s borrowing limit next year, threaten to shut the government or badly damage the US economy. This heralds a return of the government shutdown threats that were a regular holiday season tradition during the Obama administration after Republicans gained congressional majorities. And during Donald Trump’s administration, the government shut down for 35 days over the 2018-19 holiday season because of a dispute over the then-president’s demand for border wall funding – leaving federal workers furloughed and putting critical programs and services on hold.
This time, Republicans, especially in the House, believe that they have a mandate from voters to stem domestic spending on issues like Covid-19, climate change and other priorities that have characterized President Joe Biden’s administration. And even though Democrats control the House until the end of the post-election lame duck session, muscle-flexing GOP lawmakers want to use their new power now.
Democrats, meanwhile, understand that the government spending bill likely represents their last chance to enact Biden’s ambitious domestic plans until the next presidential election. The fraught final weeks of 2022 may also be their best opening to bypass the incoming GOP House by honoring Biden’s $37 billion request for new aid for Ukraine, which some conservatives oppose and which could be added to the government spending bill. Democratic leaders say the omnibus bill is urgently needed to fund police departments, to ease congestion at ports and to improve medical care for veterans and to help the US compete with China, among scores of other priorities. But Republicans argue domestic non-defense spending has already had a huge boost in Biden’s Covid-19 rescue measures and in his new climate and health care law.
The chances of a deal in the coming weeks hang in the balance and are creating a conflict between the need for good governance and politics – one that is usually resolved in bitterly divided Washington in favor of the latter force. The year-end government spending showdown – a classic example of Congress’ tendency to put off tough decisions until the last possible moment – is also being complicated by the need to pass the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act. The House passed a version of the measure last week after ending Covid-19 vaccination mandates in the military in order to draw Republican votes.
In a sign of rising political pressure over the spending clash, a group of Republican senators wrote to GOP leader Mitch McConnell last week, laying out their strategy and urging him to block a big spending bill and to agree to a short-term funding package to keep the government open for a few weeks.
“For the Senate to ram through a so-called ‘omnibus’ bill—which would fund the entirety of the Pelosi-Schumer spending agenda through most of next year—would utterly disempower the new Republican House from enacting our shared priorities,” said the letter signed by six senators including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida.
Their stance helps explain why McConnell last week gave a grim prognosis for a deal with Democrats on a big funding bill, commenting, “We don’t have agreements to do virtually anything. … We don’t even have an overall agreement on how much we’re going to spend, and we’re running out of time.”
There is one school of thought that the passage of a long-term funding mechanism might actually give House GOP leaders a break since a short-term deal would raise the possibility that one of the first acts of a new majority would be to trigger a government shutdown – a state of affairs that has often been politically damaging to the reputation of the party saddled with the blame. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is already under fierce pressure from the most radical members of his conference as he struggles to get enough votes to become speaker. He has little political leeway and has therefore been heaping public pressure on Senate Republicans to thwart Biden’s hopes of one more spending package, saying on Fox News earlier this month that once Republicans have the gavel in the House, “We would be stronger in every negotiation.”
His comments, while offering a glimpse of how he plans to preside over a confrontation with the White House, also offered insight into how the GOP House could make McConnell’s life more complicated next year as he tries to manage his party in the Senate.
Democrats are determined to get a government funding bill passed in the final days of their party’s House majority and are also gearing up for the battles that will unfold at the beginning of next year.
If lawmakers cannot agree on a deal, they will face the possibility of either passing a short-term spending bill to carry the debate into the new Congress or a longer-term continuing resolution that would extend current spending levels.
But a senior Biden administration official warned last week that even a funding deal that lasted a year would have “disastrous” consequences for key programs.
And on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, implied that Republicans were trying to jam Democrats at the end of this year to kickstart their effort in the new GOP House to slash spending on vital social programs.
“Republicans see it as an opportunity to hold us hostage and get demands that, under normal circumstances, they would not,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Look, they have not been shy about making it clear they want to cut Social Security, they want to cut Medicare, they want to cut Medicaid,” Sanders told Dana Bash.
Biden sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin up to Capitol Hill last week to brief senators on the war in Ukraine. But in a sign of the consuming nature of the spending showdown, Republicans emerged from the meeting complaining that the two secretaries spent time lobbying for an omnibus spending bill over a continuing resolution.
“It was a waste of their time. It was a waste of our time,” Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy told reporters. He said that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had asked Blinken and Austin to explain why the new spending bill was so necessary. “I knew as soon as Chuck said that. … this is just a political exercise,” Kennedy said.
Given the gulf between Democrats and Republicans who would be needed to back a spending deal in the Senate, it is increasingly likely that Congress may have to pass an ultra-short term measure to get past Friday’s deadline to allow for an extension in negotiations that would push lawmakers ever closer to the holidays.
“Bring your Yuletide carols and all that stuff here because we may be singing to each other,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters last week.
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