Tick, tick: Dem anxiety spikes as GOP digs in over shutdown countdown

Democrats are suddenly scrambling to avoid a possible government shutdown in less than 72 hours amid stalled talks with GOP leaders and conservatives now vowing a rebellion over the Biden administration’s Covid vaccine mandate.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies had planned to reach a deal on a stopgap spending bill with Republicans by Wednesday morning, allowing both chambers to quickly approve the measure and avoid a funding lapse by midnight Friday. But GOP leaders have dug in on their opposition to the Democrats’ plan, just as their party’s far-right flank vows to use its procedural powers to trigger a brief weekend shutdown.

Those sudden setbacks are now threatening to blow up one of Congress’ most important priorities this month — one of its fundamental tasks. And the rising tension is raising huge concerns across the Capitol about what’s in store for the rest of a dreaded December jammed with deadlines likely to be a lot more painful than simply extending current government funding.

“The stonewalling on the omnibus is one thing, but this? One would hope we would lock arms and at least avoid a shutdown,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), a senior member of the House spending panel. “And today is the day we need to do the House bill.”

The biggest holdup over the stopgap funding measure is exactly how long it should last.

While Democrats are eyeing a date through late January, Republicans have insisted on a longer stopgap, eager to stick their opponents with Donald Trump-approved spending levels for as long as possible.

GOP leaders insist that more time is needed to negotiate a broader bipartisan funding deal — the first of Joe Biden’s presidency. Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the longer they operate under a stopgap, the less likely lawmakers will be able to agree on a full year bill under Biden-era funding levels.

“Right now, the date is definitely a struggle,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). “It’s very evident what the Republicans are trying to do. … They want to make sure Trump’s budget just keeps going.”

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro has been publicly and privately confident that she can clinch a deal with GOP leaders. The Connecticut Democrat declined to answer questions Wednesday morning about the status of talks, growing exasperated as she told reporters: “I will let you know as soon as there is a deliberation and an endpoint.”

That prolonged standstill with Republicans has cast doubt on this week’s floor schedule, with top Democrats cautioning that vote timing will remain fluid.

“I have no idea what the schedule is, I’m being honest,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told members in a private caucus meeting Wednesday morning, according to people in the room. “Stand by.”

Senior members in charge of spending on both sides of the aisle have squabbled for weeks over the end date for a spending patch. But a new threat emerged Wednesday that puts the government on the brink of a shutdown: House and Senate conservatives are vowing to force a funding lapse in an effort to defund the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for the private sector.

The House Freedom Caucus sent a letter on Wednesday urging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to use every procedural tool at his disposal to block government funding unless the Biden administration rescinds “un-American” and “unlawful” vaccine mandates.

McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have not yet publicly commented on the conservatives’ push. But GOP leaders have other issues with Democrats’ plans for the stopgap. Among their objections are exceptions to the patch’s otherwise flat funding, known on the Hill as “anomalies,” as well as billions of dollars in possible cuts to Medicare and farm aid that remain a problem between both parties.

At least 10 Senate Republicans would need to vote with Democrats to stave off that slashing of Medicare and farm aid, set in motion by passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package back in March and poised to take effect early next year.

Congress typically avoids such cuts — a consequence of the arcane process used to steer certain fiscal bills past a Senate filibuster — with little fanfare. But this time, preventing them would require cooperation from a GOP that isn’t feeling particularly generous as Democrats pursue major spending plans without Republican votes.

Alabama’s Richard Shelby, the top Senate Republican appropriator, said Tuesday night that “I’d like February” as an end date for a funding patch. “March would suit me. April, May.”

A shorter stopgap is pointless while broader appropriations talks are at a standstill, Shelby argued.

“Until they sit down and talk substantively with us about all the poison pills that they’ve put on, it’s our position in the caucus that we’re not going to talk with them. … I think most people are ultimately better off with a clean CR for the year rather than a lot of their political wants,” he added.

Senate Democrats would also need support from at least 10 Republicans to avoid a shutdown at midnight on Friday. But as the clock ticks, Democratic anxiety has set in over how long to entertain striking a stopgap deal with the GOP and whether waiting just cedes leverage to the minority party.

Any trip-ups over government spending could complicate Democrats’ path forward to resolving other looming cliffs this month — including the deadline to raise the nation’s debt limit, which is just weeks away, and the Dec. 31 date when popular tax credits for parents will expire.

Still, many senior Democrats were projecting confidence that the party could ultimately avoid a shutdown this week.

“Some of the more extreme members of the Senate Republican group want to even shut down the government,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). “It’s not going to work. We’re prepared to act.”

“I think at the end of the day, we’ll get a deal,” added House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Heather Caygle and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

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