The government funding crisis engulfing Washington before Friday’s closing deadline is one of the first indications of the coming shift in power dynamics that will return the capital to a cold war between Republicans in Congress and the Democratic White House.
A sweeping spending bill that would avert a federal government shutdown would be one of the last acts of consolidated Democratic political control over Washington. But it has been pushed to the last minute as routine disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over spending priorities have been exacerbated by conservative Republicans who want to make key decisions until a new Congress in January, when they hope to use their new House majorities to cut spending.
It’s an early glimpse of the paralysis that can result from a 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, such as disagreements over funding for social programs and the need to raise the government borrowing limit next year, threaten to shut down the government or severely damage the US economy. This heralds the return of government shutdown threats that were a holiday tradition during the Obama administration after Republicans won a majority in Congress. And during Donald Trump’s administration, the government shut down for 35 days during the 2018-2019 holiday season due to a row over the then-president’s request for border wall funding — leaving federal workers on furlough, halting critical programs and services.
This time, Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, believe they have a mandate from voters to halt domestic spending on issues like Covid-19, climate change and other priorities that have defined President Joe Biden’s administration. And though Democrats controlled the House until the end of the post-election lame-duck session, muscle-flexing GOP lawmakers want to use their newfound power now.
Meanwhile, Democrats realize 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 the best opening for bypassing the incoming Republican House by honoring Biden’s $37 billion request for new aid to Ukraine, which some conservatives oppose and could be added to the government spending bill. Democratic leaders say the comprehensive bill is badly needed to fund police departments, ease port congestion and improve medical care for veterans and help the United States compete with China, among dozens of other priorities. But Republicans argue that non-defense domestic spending has already gotten a big boost in Biden’s Covid-19 rescue measures and in his new climate and healthcare laws.
The chances of a deal in the coming weeks hang in the balance and create a conflict between the need for good governance and politics – a conflict that is usually resolved in a deeply divided Washington in favor of the latter force. Facing government spending at the end of the year—a classic example of Congress’ tendency to put off tough decisions until the last possible moment—is also 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 the military’s Covid-19 vaccination mandates in order to woo Republican votes.
In a sign of growing 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 major spending bill and agree to a short-term funding package to keep government open for a few weeks.
“For the Senate to craft a so-called ‘omnibus’ bill—which would fund the entire Pelosi-Schumer spending agenda for most of next year—would completely disenfranchise the new Republican House from enacting our shared priorities.” A letter signed by six senators, including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rick Scott of Florida.
Their stance helps explain why last week McConnell made grim predictions for a deal with Democrats on a massive funding bill, commenting, “We don’t have agreements to do almost anything. … We don’t even have a blanket agreement on how much we’re going to spend, and time is running out.”
There is one school of thought that passing a long-term funding mechanism might give House GOP leaders a break because a short-term deal would raise the possibility that one of the first actions of the new majority would be to agitate the government. Lockdown – a situation that often politically damages the party’s reputation and is blamed for it. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is already under intense pressure from the more extreme members of his convention as he struggles to get enough votes to become president. He has little political leeway and has therefore been putting public pressure on Senate Republicans to thwart Biden’s hopes for another spending package, saying on Fox News earlier this month that once Republicans get the hammer in the House, “we’ll be Stronger in every negotiation.”
His comments, while providing a glimpse into how he plans to preside over the showdown with the White House, also provided insight into how the Republican House could make McConnell’s life more complicated next year as he tries to run his party in the Senate.
Democrats are determined to pass a government funding bill in the final days of their party’s majority in the House of Representatives, and are also preparing for the battles that will begin at the beginning of next year.
If lawmakers can’t agree on a deal, they face the possibility of passing a short-term spending bill to move the debate to the new Congress or a continuing long-term resolution that would extend current spending levels.
But a senior Biden administration official warned last week that even a one-year funding deal would have “catastrophic” consequences for key programs.
And on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who holds caucuses with Democrats, hinted that Republicans were trying to confuse Democrats at the end of this year to begin efforts in the newly elected Republican House to cut spending on vital social programs.
“Republicans see this as an opportunity to hold us hostage and make demands that they wouldn’t do under normal circumstances,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union” programme.
“Look, they haven’t been shy about making it clear that 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 Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Capitol Hill last week to brief senators on the war in Ukraine. But in a sign of the consuming nature of the spending standoff, Republicans walked out of the meeting complaining that two secretaries had spent time pushing for a comprehensive spending bill on a continuing resolution.
“It was a waste of their time. It was a waste of our time,” Louisiana Republican Sen. John F. Kennedy told reporters. Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had asked Blinken and Austin to explain why the new spending bill was necessary, he said. “I knew as soon as he said. chuck it. Kennedy said… This is just a political exercise.
Given the gap between Democrats and Republicans who would be needed to support a spending deal in the Senate, it is increasingly likely that Congress will have to pass a very short-term measure to bypass Friday’s deadline to allow for an extension of negotiations that would. Pushing lawmakers closer to the holidays.
South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune told reporters last week, “Bring Christmas carols and all that stuff in here because we might as well sing to each other.”