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Split in U.S. House GOP raises potential for government shutdown this fall

The U.S. Capitol Building on June 1, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.

Members of Congress jetted off for the August recess without a plan in place to avoid a partial government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 — and the lawmakers who write spending bills acknowledge that it’s a real possibility, given deep divisions.

The stalemate stems from a split among House Republicans about how much the government should spend and whether the bills should be filled with far-right policy objectives.

“We’re in a difficult spot right now. I regret that we are here,” Arkansas GOP Rep. Steve Womack told reporters about House Republican divisions just before the recess. “We have an entire four or five weeks now to think about it. And maybe cooler heads will prevail when we come back in September and we can get our work done.”

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, and President Joe Biden struck an agreement on spending levels back in May when they brokered the debt limit deal, though the House has written its dozen government spending bills significantly below those levels and loaded the bills up with social policy riders that couldn’t pass as stand-alone legislation.

But that hasn’t appeased some hard-line conservatives, who argue the party should force a government shutdown to move the bills even further to the right.

The disagreement among House Republicans could complicate efforts to reconcile the spending bills the Appropriations Committee wrote with those in the U.S. Senate, where lawmakers have 12 bipartisan bills ready to go.

Womack, who wrote House Republicans’ Financial Services and General Government spending bill, said he’s frustrated with the far-right members’ approach to the annual process.

“It’s one thing if what you’re demanding has a chance to become the law of the land, but it’s a whole other thing if you’re doing it just to be stubborn, and to be dug in, and to basically play my-way-or-the-highway politics,” Womack said.

“That’s just not gonna work in this environment. And we’ve got a limited amount of time. It’s an emotionally charged debate that’s going on. It’s bitterly divided. It’s shirts and skins, and the American people, I think, deserve a little better than that,” Womack said.

Maryland is particularly hard-hit during government shutdowns. There are more than 120,000 civilian federal workers in the state, and more than 160,000 federal retirees, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Senators see an ‘upper hand’ in talks

Senate appropriators expressed similar views, and several said they expect the final spending bills will look much more like the bipartisan bills their committee has approved.

Montana Democrat Jon Tester, chair of the Defense spending panel, said he expects the final bills would look “more like the Senate bill than the House bill.”

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, chair of the Labor-HHS-Education spending Subcommittee, said the bipartisan nature of the Senate bills will give that chamber an advantage when talks with the House begin.

“I think we’re going to have the upper hand in those negotiations,” Baldwin said.

Womack said it isn’t out of the question that the House may just have to accept the Senate’s government funding bills outright, without being able to advocate for some of the spending levels and policies within their bills.

“Look, if we get too unreasonable, I expect that’s what the Senate will do — they’ll say, ‘Well, here it is. Take it or leave it’ and leave town,” Womack said.

What would a shutdown look like?

The first deadline Congress faces will be Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year and the date when there must be a new government funding law in place. Historically, that’s a stopgap spending bill through December.

The kick-the-can-down the road approach is often seen as an opportunity for a couple more months of negotiations, though there’s already concern certain factions of the Republican Party may try to block that from moving forward.

If that happens, Congress would plunge the federal government into a partial shutdown that would be drastically different from the 34-day shutdown during the Trump administration.

When the prolonged stalemate began in 2018, Congress had already approved five of its bills, meaning the Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Labor and Veterans Affairs departments weren’t affected by the shutdown. Congress had also passed its own funding bill, exempting themselves and their staff from the impacts of the funding lapse.

The second deadline would be whenever the first stopgap expires, or Jan. 1.

If the dozen annual government funding bills don’t become law before the new year, a provision in the debt limit law would force a 1% across-the-board spending cut to defense and domestic discretionary programs.

There’s bipartisan concern within Congress that such a cut would have severe consequences, especially because lawmakers wouldn’t be able to direct which programs would be impacted and which wouldn’t.

Womack said in a separate interview with States Newsroom that efforts to pass a short-term spending bill in September, historically a standard process, will be an “interesting dilemma for the Congress.”

“In this current environment we’re in, there are no guarantees anymore,” Womack said. “Conventional wisdom is kind of out the window on a lot of these types of issues.”

McCarthy intends to pass bills

McCarthy has begun publicly advocating for getting all of the spending bills enacted sooner rather than later, arguing that a series of stopgap spending bills would leave policies and funding levels in place from when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House.

“I have a real concern in appropriations when I look at all the Pelosi policies that would be permanent if we did not get appropriations done, especially if members would look to do a continuing resolution,” McCarthy said, referring to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

McCarthy said it’s his intention and his hope to pass all dozen government funding bills before the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1, though he didn’t clarify if he meant pass in the House or pass Congress.

The former is much more likely than the latter, though neither is guaranteed given the shortened timetable and the politics at play.

Florida Republican Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, chair of the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said he’s optimistic there will be a bipartisan deal before the Jan. 1 spending cuts deadline — if he and his colleagues are allowed to conference with the Senate and do their jobs.

“If we’re allowed to go to conference, we’ll get the job done,” Díaz-Balart said. “Usually the process doesn’t really break down because of the appropriators, it breaks up because of other circumstances … and in that area I’ll leave it up to others.”

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the top Democrat on the Financial Services and General Government panel, said Republicans need to build consensus within their own party about spending levels and policy before they can conference with the Senate.

“The Republican Party right now is a dysfunctional party. They do not have a consensus,” Hoyer said.

Freedom Caucus clout

Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan said House Republicans are trying to balance different factions of their caucus in the same way the characters of “The Addams Family”’ interact in the fictional movie.

“What they’ve done so far has put their values out there, which are pretty bad ones,” Pocan said, just days before Republicans removed funding for three LGBTQ projects from one of the spending bills. “I think the question will be within the makeup of their caucus — kind of a Cousin It, Morticia, Uncle Fester.”

Pocan said he’s concerned House Republicans’ decision to reduce spending levels below the debt limit deal, and add in especially conservative policy language, dilutes the House’s negotiating stance with the Senate.

“At the end of the day, my worry is that that gives the Senate even more leverage — they’re writing the bill, they have the keys to the car, while we’re kind of riding in the trunk — because we haven’t done the work that is necessary when you get the conference committee to actually have a House position that, regardless of party, is important to have in that process,” Pocan said.

Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, the top Democrat on the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, said efforts to merge the House and Senate versions of the dozen spending bills into a final bipartisan bill will be especially challenging.

“There’s no doubt that conference (committee) assumes much more importance this year because of what’s happening with these bills. We’re accommodating the wish list of the Freedom Caucus essentially with the cuts in government investments across the board,” Cartwright said, referring to the group of especially conservative House Republicans.

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, chair of the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee, said he has confidence Congress will be able to send Biden all dozen spending bills.

Cole’s optimism comes from the two panels’ leadership, which for the first time in the country’s history is led by four women. They include House Chair Kay Granger, a Texas Republican; House ranking member Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat; Senate Chair Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat; and Senate ranking member Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

“I think in the end, it’ll be tough. But I think they will drive it through to a conclusion,” he said. “And again, the alternative is just so awful.”

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Split in U.S. House GOP raises potential for government shutdown this fall