The government funding standoff gripping Washington ahead of Friday’s shutdown deadline is one of the first indicators of the imminent shift in power dynamics that will plunge the capital back into a reigning Cold War between Republicans in Congress and a Democratic White House.
An omnibus spending bill that would avert the federal government’s shutdown would be one of the last acts of unified Democratic political control over Washington. But it’s being pushed to the last minute as routine squabbles between Republicans and Democrats over spending priorities are exacerbated by conservative Republicans who want to make key decisions before the new Congress in January, when they hope to use their new House majority to to cut spending.
It’s a first glimpse of the paralysis that could result from a divided government if neither side has the power to fully fulfill the promises they made to voters in last month’s midterm elections, when Republicans won the House of Representatives and the Democrats retained control of the Senate.
Some of these clashes, such as disputes over funding for social programs and the need to raise government credit limits next year, threaten to shut down the government or severely damage the US economy. This heralds a return of government shutdown threats, which were a regular holiday season tradition during the Obama administration after Republicans won majorities in Congress. And during Donald Trump’s administration, the government shut down for the 2018-19 holiday season over a dispute over the then-president’s request for border wall funding, furloughing federal employees and suspending critical programs and services.
This time around, Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, believe they have a voter mandate to rein in domestic spending on issues like Covid-19, climate change and other priorities that have shaped President Joe Biden’s administration. And though Democrats will control the House of Representatives until the end of the post-election lame duck session, the muscular GOP lawmakers now want to use their newfound power.
Democrats, meanwhile, understand that the government spending bill is likely their last chance to implement Biden’s ambitious domestic policy plans before the next presidential election. The tense final weeks of 2022 could also be their best opening to bypassing the new GOP House of Representatives by agreeing to Biden’s $37 billion request for new aid to Ukraine, which some conservatives are rejecting and adding to the government spending bill could become. Democratic leaders say the omnibus bill is badly needed to fund police departments, reduce port congestion and improve medical care for veterans, and help the US compete with China, among numerous other priorities. But Republicans argue that domestic non-defense spending has already received a huge boost in Biden’s Covid-19 bailout and in his new climate and health law.
The odds of an agreement in the coming weeks are on the line, creating a conflict between the need for good governance and politics, which in bitterly divided Washington is usually resolved in favor of the latter force. The year-end government spending showdown — a classic example of Congress’ tendency to postpone tough decisions until the last possible moment — is also complicated by the need to pass the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act. The House of Representatives passed a version of the measure last week after ending Covid-19 vaccination mandates in the military to win Republican votes.
In a sign of mounting political pressure over the spending dispute, a group of Republican senators wrote to GOP leader Mitch McConnell last week, outlining their strategy and urging him to block a major spending bill and agree to a short-term funding package to keep the government for a few weeks open.
“If the Senate were to pass what is known as an ‘omnibus’ bill — which would fund the entire spending agenda of Pelosi and Schumer through most of next year — the new Republican house would be completely deprived of the power to implement our shared priorities,” the letter said. signed by six Senators including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida.
Her stance helps explain why McConnell last week gave a bleak forecast for a deal with Democrats on a big funding bill, commenting, “We have virtually no agreements on anything. … We don’t even have a general agreement on how much we’re going to spend, and we’re running out of time.”
There is a school of thought that passing a long-term funding mechanism might actually give House GOP leaders pause, as a near-term deal would raise the possibility that one of the first acts of a new majority would be to trigger a government shutdown — one A condition that has often politically damaged the reputation of the party at fault. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is already under intense pressure from the most radical members of his conference as he struggles to get enough votes to become Speaker. With little policy space, he has put public pressure on Senate Republicans to thwart Biden’s hopes of another 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.”
While his comments gave a glimpse of how he plans to lead a confrontation with the White House, they also offered a glimpse of how the GOP house could complicate McConnell’s life next year as he seeks to lead his party in the Senate .
The Democrats are determined to push through a government funding bill in the final days of their party’s parliamentary majority and are also preparing for the fighting that will take place early next year.
If lawmakers cannot agree on an agreement, they face the option of passing either a short-term spending bill to carry the debate into the new Congress, or a longer-term, rolling resolution that would increase current spending levels.
But a senior Biden administration official warned last week that even a funding deal that lasted a year would have “catastrophic” consequences for key programs.
And on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who works with Democrats, implied that Republicans were trying to block Democrats later this year to jump-start their efforts in the new GOP House spending on vital social programs to shorten.
“The Republicans see this as an opportunity to hold us hostage and get demands they wouldn’t get under normal circumstances,” Sanders said on CNN’s State of the Union.
“Look, they haven’t 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 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 were spending time pushing for an omnibus spending bill over a standing resolution.
“It was a waste of time. It was a waste of time,” Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told reporters. He said that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked Blinken and Austin to explain why the new spending bill was so necessary. “I knew it as soon as Chuck said that. …this is just a political exercise,” Kennedy said.
Given the gap between Democrats and Republicans that would be needed to back a Senate spending deal, it’s increasingly likely that Congress will have to pass an ultra-short-term measure to beat Friday’s deadline and allow negotiations to be extended by lawmakers getting closer and closer to the holidays.
“Bring your carols and all that stuff over here because we might sing together,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters last week.