Saturday, May 25, 2024

House passes bill to extend government shutdown deadlines

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The House on Thursday approved legislation to extend the expiration date for federal funding later into March, sending the measure to prevent a partial government shutdown that was set for Saturday to the Senate, where it is expected the pass.

Funds for several crucial federal agencies are set to expire just after midnight on Saturday. That would spark a partial government shutdown with broad, cascading impacts across the government and economy. Air traffic controllers would go unpaid, potentially contributing to travel delays. Food stamp programs could quickly run low on funding. Housing assistance for millions of families would fall into jeopardy. Another, larger shutdown cliff awaits just a week later, when funds for the rest of the government, including the Defense and State departments, will also expire, unless Congress acts.

But Thursday’s bill, which passed by a vote of 320-99, would push the funding deadline for several agencies - including the departments Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Energy, Agriculture, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency - until March 8. Finances for the rest of the federal government would expire on March 22, two weeks later than under current law.

Yet lawmakers said that was small consolation. Congress was supposed to have several appropriations, or spending bills for the rest of the fiscal year, ready to pass by the end of the week. Instead, bickering over policy demands pushed the federal government to the brink of a shutdown again, necessitating another stopgap spending bill - the third since September - to buy more time.

“The appropriations process is ugly. Democracy is ugly,” House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said Thursday.

Democrats, fed up with House Republicans’ foot-dragging and constant temporary spending bills, agreed.

“If that’s what it takes to get this done, then let’s do it. But this ‘kicking the can down the road’ crap really does need to stop,” said Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democratic negotiator on the defense appropriations bill said Wednesday.

“Let this be our last continuing resolution,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Democrats’ top House negotiator, said Thursday on the House floor.

This government funding process was supposed to be far less fraught. President Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy last spring agreed to constrain federal spending for the 2024 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2023, and ends Sept. 30, in exchange for suspending the debt limit.

But far-right lawmakers in the House grew furious with McCarthy for not extracting deeper spending cuts, and they ultimately ousted him from the speakership. Republicans elected Johnson as his replacement in late October, and the Louisianian has struggled to navigate spending debates ever since.

In November, he steered the House to pass a stopgap funding bill, called a continuing resolution or CR, that staggered funding deadlines for the federal government over two dates, then pledged he would not consider another temporary spending law.

In January, he and Schumer agreed to a $1.7 trillion fiscal framework, adhering to the limits set by the debt ceiling agreement, then passed another short-term funding bill to allow appropriators sufficient time to negotiate individual line items.

But last week, the speaker told Republicans on a conference call that the spending bills he’d worked out with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had plenty of “singles and doubles” - conservative wins on spending and policy - but not “home runs or grand slams,” that many right-wing lawmakers had insisted on.

Those negotiations dragged on too long for Congress to have spending legislation completed before federal funding expired this weekend.

“We knew finding common ground would not be easy. But we’ve made progress and need a few more weeks to finishing drafting the bills,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Thursday on the House floor.

Republicans griped that since Johnson’s call last week, the speaker has not shared what any of the conservative wins might be, nor did he divulge any of them during a Thursday morning meeting with his GOP conference that one lawmaker in attendance described as a “very rough” airing of grievances against the speaker’s handling of spending bills.

“People are gravely concerned that we’re not going to do anything on border,” said the lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting. “We keep saying we’re going to cut spending, but we haven’t.”

“I’d like to know the examples of the ‘doubles,’” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), chair of the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, said after the meeting. “And I haven’t heard anything that we’re going to get policywise that I would consider ‘doubles.’”

The Freedom Caucus and a growing chorus of other conservatives have pushed Johnson to buck the debt limit deal and press for conservative policy provisions - on issues including restrictions on abortion access and LGBTQ rights and clawing back Biden’s climate agenda and immigration orders - as part of a funding agreement.

Short of those achievements, Johnson’s right flank has urged him to abandon passing appropriations bills altogether and extend funding on a temporary basis until October, which would trigger across-the-board spending cuts throughout the federal government as part of the deal that suspended the debt limit. Those cuts would even hit defense spending, long a sacred cow to Republicans.

“Here we are again, kicking the can down the road and for other purposes,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), a leading Freedom Caucus budget hawk, said on the House floor, “to buy more time to spend more money we don’t have.”

But Johnson and his raucous House Republican conference have very little leverage to exact those spending cuts or policy wins. The Freedom Caucus has routinely blocked procedural votes, stalling business on the House floor in protest of the speaker’s spending decisions.

With only a tiny GOP majority, that’s forced Johnson to court support from Democrats for nearly any legislation to clear the chamber.

“We need a larger majority,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), the hard-right budget hawk who wrote the proposal for the government-wide spending cuts. “It’s almost impossible right now with a two-seat majority.”

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Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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