Democrats are scrambling to avoid a possible government shutdown in less than 72 hours as they desperately seek an agreement with the GOP during a day of frantic cross-aisle talks.
The state of talks had not improved by Wednesday afternoon, with GOP leaders dug in on their opposition to Democrats’ plans and the party’s right flank vowing to use its procedural powers to trigger a brief weekend shutdown over President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate. But some senior Democrats believe a deal could be within reach.
“I have reason to believe, having talked to the speaker, that there may be an agreement,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday afternoon.
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 the House will not vote Wednesday on a funding fix, according to senior Democrats, which gives party leaders just two fraught days to avert a shutdown — even a brief one. If a deal is reached, the House Rules panel could still meet Wednesday night, teeing up quick action on Thursday to send a bill to the Senate.
Complicating matters further, the Senate is locked in a stalemate over the annual defense policy bill, leaving the chamber little floor time to process a stopgap spending bill before the weekend.
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has been publicly and privately confident that she can clinch a shutdown-averting deal with GOP leaders, seemed exasperated as she entered the House chamber Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re still waiting. Still waiting,” she said. “Let’s keep some optimism.”
Those sudden setbacks are now threatening to blow up one of Congress’ most important priorities this month and 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.”
Still, with the Senate floor sitting idle amid negotiations over the defense measure, Republicans might be able to run out the clock before Friday night, denying adequate floor time to consider a funding bill. Senate leaders were still negotiating Wednesday afternoon over a package of amendments to the defense legislation, with a small group of Republicans insisting on additional amendment votes.
One of the biggest holdups over the stopgap funding measure: exactly how long it should last.
While Democrats are eyeing a date through late January, Republicans have insisted on a longer timeline for the spending bill — known as a continuing resolution — eager to stick their opponents with Donald Trump-approved spending levels for as long as possible.
“Republicans should be in favor of CRs until Biden is out of office,” said Texas Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw. “That would be the proper Republican thing to do and anybody saying otherwise is deeply foolish.“
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.
“There is a good conversation to be had about what the length of that is and whether we’re just setting Democrats up to pass much worse bills,” Crenshaw said.
The prolonged standstill with Republicans has cast doubt on this week’s floor schedule, with top Democrats cautioning that vote timing on the funding fix will remain fluid.
Senior members in charge of spending on both sides of the aisle have squabbled for weeks over the end date for the spending patch. That was before the new threat over the vaccine mandate funding emerged Wednesday, as House and Senate conservatives compounded the possibility of a shutdown with their vow 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, while several GOP senators said Wednesday that forcing a brief shutdown over vaccine mandates would accomplish little.
GOP leaders also 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.
It’s unclear if the stopgap will ultimately avoid the cuts, Hoyer said Wednesday afternoon, adding that “it’s incomprehensible to me that we can’t pass a simple CR to keep the government open.”
Alabama’s Richard Shelby, the top Senate Republican appropriator, told reporters Wednesday that they could be in for “some long nights between now and Friday,” when federal cash would lapse.
A shorter stopgap through January is pointless while broader appropriations talks are at a standstill, Shelby has argued.
“I think if it happened today, I’d be surprised,” he said of a deal on a funding patch.
Senate Democrats 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.
Olivia Beavers, Heather Caygle, Andrew Desiderio and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.