Congress races to avert government shutdown — and may actually do it
Congress is scrambling to fund much of the federal government before the fiscal year ends, anxious to avoid an unpopular government shutdown or a bitter battle over President Trump’s demands for a border wall less than two months before the midterm election.
Republicans and Democrats hope to complete legislation that would appropriate $1.24 trillion before the government runs out of money on Oct. 1, potentially forcing all but vital services and agencies to shut down or trim operations.
Lawmakers are expected to pass many but not all of the 12 funding bills by the end of September. The Senate and House overwhelmingly approved three appropriations bills late Wednesday and on Thursday.
“The fact that Congress is doing its job shouldn’t be amazing, but it is,” said Emily Holubowich, who tracks the appropriations process as a senior vice president at CRD Associates, a lobbying firm.
Funding the government is one of Congress’ most basic responsibilities. But lawmakers have not passed all their funding bills on time since 1997. And they haven’t passed more than one of their 12 funding bills on time since 2007.
More often than not, Congress votes on a temporary stopgap measure to keep funds flowing at the same level as the year prior. The process has regularly broken down since 1977, when the current budget appropriations process began, leading to funding gaps. The government has shut down for longer than one day — often leading to the furlough of government workers — eight times since 1981.
This year, Trump has said he would not sign another stopgap funding measure. That left Congress little choice but to appropriate the money or risk a politically toxic shutdown before the Nov. 6 election. Republicans face an uphill battle to keep control of the House but appear likely to hold the Senate.
In addition, lawmakers this year agreed to add $153 billion to the total funding level, preventing the typical battles over how to spend resources.
“It is really easy to agree on stuff when you give yourself an extra $153 billion,” said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington. “People who have money don’t fight about money.”
Congress still faces obstacles, however. The House plans to be in session only four more days this month so members can go home to campaign for reelection. And partisan battles could erupt over funding of contentious issues such as the border wall or abortion services.
The first of four sets of spending bills — for the Energy Department and Veterans Affairs, among other programs — easily passed the Senate by a vote of 92-5 on Wednesday.
The second cluster — for health, labor and defense programs — is largely agreed upon and expected to pass before Sept. 30. Lawmakers and their staffs are still working on a third group of bills to fund the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency.
The fourth group — which deals with immigration and Homeland Security, including border security — is not expected to be done in time.
Lawmakers plan to pass a stopgap measure to keep those agencies and operations funded through mid-December, although the date is in flux. If Democrats win control of the House in November, outgoing Republican lawmakers would have to vote before their replacements are seated in January.
The biggest wildcard is Trump, who wants $5 billion for the border wall, a proposal Democrats would certainly block. Last week, the president appeared to endorse a shutdown over the wall, saying it would be a “great political issue.”
An agreement on the first round of spending bills — even though they are the least controversial — has given lawmakers hope they can pass other bills in time to avoid a shutdown.
The first package “has bipartisan support [and] is free of poison-pill riders” that could jeopardize support, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Other Democrats are skeptical of grouping diverse funding bills together, particularly combining the health provisions, a favorite issue of Democrats, with defense, a favorite of the GOP. The strategy assumes enough lawmakers care about those issues that the bill is bound to pass.
“I don’t think this is the way the appropriations process is supposed to work,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
In the 42 years since the current budgeting and appropriations process was enacted, Congress has passed all its spending bills on time only four times: 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997, according to Pew Research.
Bills to fund the Labor Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have proved the most problematic over the years. Lawmakers regularly insert provisions seeking to block abortion or the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
Between 2011 and 2016, not a single spending bill was passed by Oct. 1, according to Pew.
The government shut down for 17 days in 2013 over a protest of Obamacare led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Under Trump, the government shut for a few hours in February after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) prevented a vote on a spending bill in what he called a protest over the total amount.
3:35 p.m.: This story was updated after the Senate passed the first package of spending bills.
This story was originally posted at 1:45 p.m.
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