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Congress Heads Toward a September Scramble
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Congress Heads Toward a September Scramble

The gap between the House and Senate spending plans grows as the end of the fiscal year approaches.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks on his cell phone as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol on September 0, 2023. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

With only 23 days before funding for the federal government runs out, lawmakers’ lax schedule of late might lead you to believe everything is under control. If the country was truly on the precipice of a government shutdown, surely members of Congress would have returned from their summer recess before this weekor next!—to hammer out appropriations for the next fiscal year.

Think again.

The House and Senate are still about $153 billion apart on their topline funding plans, setting lawmakers up for a chaotic scramble once the House joins the Senate next week in returning to work. The best-case scenario at this point appears to be a short-term continuing resolution (CR), which would temporarily fund the government at current levels and, if passed by September 30, avert a shutdown.

Ahead of the expected stalemate, Senate leaders are hoping their diligence in recent months will provide them leverage with their colleagues in the lower chamber: The Senate has moved all 12 of the required appropriations bills through the committee process with bipartisan votes. And as soon as next week, the Senate will take up a “minibus” package that would consider and seek to pass several of the individual appropriations bills at once. That process may include some drama. Passing the bills in a timely fashion will require unanimous consent, meaning any one senator could decide to throw a wrench in the process by withholding consent in an attempt to extract concessions. Both chambers must pass their versions of the 12 appropriations bills before the reconciliation process can begin.

Meanwhile, the House has passed 10 out of 12 through the Appropriations Committee (mostly along party lines). But only one bill, which deals with military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies, has made it through the entire House—on a 219-211 vote. 

Also in question is the $40 billion supplemental aid package requested by the Biden administration that includes additional funding for immigration issues along the U.S.-Mexico border: money to hire more immigration judges, funds for the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, and money for border enforcement and migrant services. The package would also give $12 billion for natural disaster relief (the agency faces a $4 billion shortfall by September 30), and it asks for $24.1 billion for the Ukrainian war effort. The latter provision in particular has the potential to cause problems given the divides within the Republican Party on the issue. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, tells Uphill he’d vote against the supplemental package if it included Ukraine aid, though it’s unlikely Paul would have supported it either way. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, also opposed funding more Ukraine aid. 

But Paul and Hawley may be a part of a vocal minority. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina estimated to reporters Thursday that about 70 percent of the Republican conference is united around more funding for Ukraine, and Sen. Mitt Romney tells The Dispatch that “Ukraine support is strong enough in both chambers [to pass].”

In Romney’s mind, the immigration-related provisions are more likely to jeopardize support for the supplemental package than the Ukraine ones: “The border provisions could well defeat the entire measure.”

On the House side, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is weighing putting the issue of Ukraine aid on the back burner and moving forward instead with a bill that only addresses disaster relief and border funding. Doing so would likely set up a clash between the chambers.

Senators of both parties have been expecting this confrontation for months, as a number of House Republicans have tied their support for a continuing resolution to demands unlikely to go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, stoking shutdown fears. Rep. Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican, said he would not vote for any CR that didn’t defund the Department of Justice. He also joined a group of 15 Republicans who in a letter objected to funding the Department of Homeland Security unless the Biden administration agreed to immigration-related demands, including the ousting of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

“It’s House extremists that have us all worried,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, tells The Dispatch. She wasn’t worried about Senate Republicans’ support for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, vice chairman of the Senate GOP conference, told CNN that House Republicans shouldn’t have abandoned the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the bipartisan debt ceiling deal that McCarthy cut with President Joe Biden in May that set spending caps for fiscal year 2024 government funding. “When you make a deal, I think you should stick to the deal,” she said. Bowing to pressure from his right flank, McCarthy has vowed to pass appropriations bills that slash spending to levels even lower than those upon which he and Biden agreed.

Even some of the senators typically supportive of House Republicans’ hardline efforts have criticized strategies that use a shutdown as leverage.

“I don’t think it’s a successful or effective lever of negotiations, I think it ends up hurting people, I just have never been in favor of a shutdown,” Hawley told reporters Thursday. “It just rubs me the wrong way.”

When Congress returns, House leadership will start moving the remaining spending bills across the floor while figuring out how to make a stopgap palatable to the members. The Senate is expected to focus on the minibus over the next couple of weeks.

Some members are hoping the stopgap will only be until November or early December, so that legislators will be forced to wrap up their work on government funding before next year.

“It doesn’t matter whatever the deadline is, the frustrations and the protests will come at that time,” Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, told The Dispatch. “So give us enough time to actually work through and get the overall package of appropriations bills completed.” 

McConnell Determined to Finish Term

While all these negotiations are swirling, Republican senators are also facing questions about Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s health and his ability to lead the conference following his concussion earlier this year and two public instances of him freezing up while taking questions.

McConnell and his team have tried to quell concerns: “I have no announcements to make on that subject. I’m going to finish my term as leader and I’m going to finish my Senate term,” he told reporters.

His term ends after the 2024 election. Capitol physician Brian Monahan said in a letter this week he found “no evidence” McConnell has a “seizure disorder,” or that he had suffered a stroke. McConnell also told his GOP colleagues in a private meeting Wednesday that he’d been “given a clean bill of health,” Politico reported

The other senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, hasn’t publicly questioned McConnell’s ability to lead the conference, but he has questioned the wisdom of public diagnoses from Monahan and others.

“If you say it’s dehydration, and say it’s not seizure disorder, and these things continue to worsen, maybe you’ve precluded a diagnosis that actually is a real possibility,” Paul, an ophthalmologist, told reporters Thursday.

He said that while he didn’t know the details of what had happened, “what has been said publicly about this being dehydration is inaccurate, inadequate, invalid diagnosis. And I think it brings up too many questions.”

Of Note

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.