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Shutdown Incoming

Breaking down lawmakers’ options for breaking the stalemate.

A traffic barrier in front of the dome of the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The question before Congress no longer appears to be whether the federal government will shut down at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Now the questions are how long the shutdown will drag on and how lawmakers will get out of it.

Option 1: Negotiate on a continuing resolution.

Both chambers have worked this week to advance continuing resolutions (CR) to temporarily keep the government open, but the House’s version quickly went down in flames Friday afternoon, failing 232-198, with 21 Republicans siding with Democrats in voting against it.

“That number in there, I don’t know how you overcome that,” Rep. Steve Womack, a GOP appropriator, said afterwards.

Still, a CR seemed the likeliest vehicle for reopening the government while lawmakers work toward a consensus on fully funding the government for fiscal year 2024. But the House and Senate versions of a CR are miles apart when it comes to topline numbers and policy priorities. 

The Senate’s version would keep the lights on for the government for six weeks. And though senators at the beginning of this week flirted with the idea of passing a “clean” CR—one with no additional policy riders attached—they reversed course to settle on a version that includes $6 billion in Ukraine aid plus funding for disaster relief. Barring an eleventh-hour change of heart that would grant the Senate the ability to fast-track it, the Senate’s final vote won’t come until Sunday, hours into the shutdown.

But there are other difficulties, including disagreements between Republicans in both chambers.

Some in the Senate are attempting to sweeten their version for House Republicans by including an amendment bolstering border security. That group, which includes Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democrat-turned-Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, is reportedly in talks with their GOP counterparts in the House. But if it’s paired with Ukraine aid, even some border security provisions may not be enough to win support.

The House’s version that failed Friday would have kept federal agencies open for 30 days, but it’s somewhat nontraditional in that it includes spending cuts rather than a continuation of spending levels from the previous year. While defense spending won’t take any cuts, social programs will be vastly reduced (the act cuts nondefense spending by 30 percent). The stopgap also includes a substantial portion of H.R. 2, a border security bill House Republicans favor. 

The bill is similar to a previous version of a stopgap measure negotiated weeks ago by House Freedom Caucus members and members of the pragmatic Republican Main Street Caucus. But it never came to the floor after House leadership found it lacked the votes to pass. 

McCarthy critics predicted this vote would fail too: “It doesn’t have enough Republicans to pass,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said.

The House could still try again with another version of a partisan CR at a future point.

Option 2: Pass regular appropriations bills.

Another option to reopen the government is to take the slower slog of fully funding fiscal year 2024. Just like with the CR, both chambers are on track to consider vastly different versions of appropriations bills. While the Senate ended up approving its bills out of committee on a bipartisan basis, the House has packed its versions with conservatives’ priorities and some poison pills that jeopardize their fate in the Senate. (One example is an amendment that would slash Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s salary to $1.)

Republicans worked late into the night Thursday passing a series of  budget bills with deep spending cuts along party-line votes. The bills were for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State and related programs. A fourth bill, to fund the Department of Agriculture, tanked after 27 Republicans voted against it, some because of abortion pill-related provisions. As far as funding all 12 fiscal year 2024 bills, that brings the tally in the House up to four.

The Senate has passed no fiscal year 2024 bills yet.

But even GOP leadership doesn’t want to take that slower route during a shutdown.

“Let us be absolutely clear about what’s at stake. Shutting down the government is not like pressing pause. It’s not an interlude that let’s us pick up where we left off. It’s an actively harmful proposition,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell complained on the Senate floor Thursday. He warned that a past shutdown in 2019 cost taxpayers over $3 billion in gross domestic product.

And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy framed the avoidance of shutdown as integral to controlling immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border, an attempt to convince hardliners in his conference to back off their budget demands. 

“As we continue to get conservative wins and return to regular order, we actually need a stopgap measure to allow the House to continue to finish its work,” he said at a Friday morning press conference. “To make sure our military gets paid, to make sure our border agents get paid, as we finish the job that we’re supposed to do.”

“Every member will have to go on record where they stand,” he said. But as Friday’s vote showed, the dare didn’t work.

Option 3: McCarthy ditches the hardliners.

Since it’s virtually guaranteed that neither the Democratic-controlled Senate nor the Biden administration would sign onto a measure negotiated exclusively by House Republicans, most House Republicans are convinced that increasingly, the only way forward for them is without their party’s holdouts. 

“I’m encouraging the speaker to walk away from these five to 10 people and start working across the aisle,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican member of the pragmatic Problem Solvers Caucus, told Semafor.

House Democrats have already offered to help pass the Senate’s version of the stopgap bill. 

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Friday after the House’s CR vote failed that “the only path forward is to partner with House Democrats in a bipartisan way. We’re prepared to do just that.”

But McCarthy has already said he won’t bring up the Senate’s version for a vote because anti-Ukraine aid sentiment has started to harden among House Republicans: On Thursday, the Defense Department bill, which hardline Republicans had blocked twice from coming to the floor, finally passed. But only after Republicans removed funding for Ukraine from the bill. The House did pass the lopped-off Ukraine aid as a standalone bill, thanks to unanimous Democratic support, but all 117 votes against it were from the GOP. More than half of Republicans voted against it, with only 101 Republicans voting for the bill.

Gaetz called the vote a “major moment in changing perceptions” of GOP support for Ukraine.

But the chorus of voices frustrated with Gaetz and his allies’ no-holds-barred approach to the shutdown is growing. “I frankly don’t understand it,” Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who presided over two different shutdowns in his day, told the Washington Post. “I think it’s sort of nuts. There are times people vote yes one day, and then they come back and vote no the next day, and can’t explain why they switched.”

The Heritage Foundation also called for Republicans to support the House’s version of the CR ahead of the vote. 

“The current government shutdown debate lacks any coherent policy explanation,” Manhattan Institute fellow Brian Riedl wrote for The Dispatch today. “It is purely political theater driven by a small handful of Republican House lawmakers who are being called out by their own colleagues for self-promotion and populist positioning.”

It seems likely that, whatever move McCarthy makes next, he will still be staring down the barrel of a motion to oust him as speaker. Conservatives are discussing a motion to vacate the chair as soon as next weekend. But even if McCarthy’s tenure is limited, it’s unclear whether that group can find someone with the support of 218 lawmakers to replace him.

One member of McCarthy’s leadership team, floated as a possible alternative, has shot down the idea. “I fully support Kevin McCarthy,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, the No. 3 Republican in leadership, told the Washington Post. “I have zero interest in palace intrigue. End of discussion.”

The Longest Serving Female Senator Dies

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, died overnight in her Washington, D.C., home, her office announced Friday. She was the Senate’s oldest member. The statement did not announce a cause of death.

She became mayor of San Francisco after a double assassination, an experience that would shape her long support for gun control. In 1992, she won election to the Senate and became California’s first female senator. She became known as one of the lawmakers willing to work across the aisle at times and frustrated both Democrats and Republicans with her positions. As a member and then chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, she participated in the confirmation hearings for several Supreme Court nominees. In recent years, she faced questions about cognitive decline, health issues, and her fitness to serve and announced in February she would not seek reelection in 2024.

“Senator Feinstein never backed away from a fight for what was right and just. At the same time, she was always willing to work with anyone, even those she disagreed with, if it meant bettering the lives of Californians or the betterment of our nation,” her office said in a statement. “There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother. Senator Feinstein was a force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state. She left a legacy that is undeniable and extraordinary.”

Feinstein cast her final vote Thursday on the motion to start debate on the Senate’s stopgap bill to keep the government open. It’s unclear whom California Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint to fill her seat. He’s previously said he would appoint a black woman to serve out the remainder of Feinstein’s term, but said later he only wants to appoint someone who sees themselves as more of an “interim” senator, not someone who wants to run for reelection. Democrats now hold a 50-49 seat majority in the upper chamber.

On Friday, Feinstein’s colleagues started the day by honoring her memory, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer calling her one of “the most amazing people who graced the Senate.” A bouquet of white roses filled her now-empty seat.

Of Note

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.