Congress’ Long Summer Break Leaves It Little Time To Avoid A Government Shutdown

Lawmakers are enjoying an extended respite from Washington without an obvious map for keeping the government open after Sept. 30.

As House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wrapped up his pre-summer break press conference in late July, he chided reporters who had been skeptical of House Republicans’ ability to overcome an unruly caucus and pass legislation.

The Capitol press corps had a pattern of questioning Republicans’ unity at the beginning of each week, he said, only to be proved wrong when the GOP majority would secure wins on the House floor by week’s end.

“I will look forward to your questions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of doubting us,” McCarthy said. “But more importantly, I look forward to your questions on Thursday and Friday, but asking about the next week as well.”

At the time, McCarthy was on a bit of a high. The House had just passed the first of a dozen bills funding the day-to-day activities of various federal agencies, in this case one dealing with veterans and the construction of military projects.

But it was a slightly hollow taunt. Despite promises, the House did not take up a bill funding the Agriculture Department that week.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks at a news conference as the House prepares to leave for its summer in Washington on July 27.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks at a news conference as the House prepares to leave for its summer in Washington on July 27.
via Associated Press

For all of McCarthy’s bluster, the dynamic that sank the agriculture funding bill ― disagreements between a group of far-right House Republicans, including the House Freedom Caucus, and others in the party less hawkish about cutting spending ― explains why basically no one believes lawmakers can pass the other 11 funding bills by Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.

Even if McCarthy can pull the GOP troops together, an incredibly limited time frame ― the House would have to pass 11 bills in 12 days ― and splits with the Senate make the job all but impossible.

That means Congress needs to either pass a stopgap bill to keep the lights on or see a shutdown of the government. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, thinks the latter is far more likely.

“I think we’re moving toward a shutdown,” she predicted in a conversation with reporters recently. “There is dissension in their ranks.”

One thing adding to the gloom is the calendar. Congress went into recess July 27, and members of the House of Representatives aren’t scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 12. They are set to be in session only 12 days total that month. The Senate gets back a week earlier, on Sept. 5, but is in for only a few more days, 17.

The core division driving the pessimism was highlighted Wednesday when the House Freedom Caucus, which wants much lower annual spending on federal agencies and programs, called the coming fight an opportunity “to end Washington’s addiction to spending.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) arrives at a bill markup meeting for the House Appropriations Committee on June 14.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) arrives at a bill markup meeting for the House Appropriations Committee on June 14.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

“We must cut the funding levels for the federal bureaucracy back to where they were before the COVID pandemic and reverse the years of reckless inflationary spending,” the group wrote on the website formerly known as Twitter, citing Monday’s surprise cut in U.S. creditworthiness by Fitch Ratings.

The debt limit deal reached in June was meant to make a shutdown less likely. In it, Democrats and Republicans agreed to cap the total of the annual spending bills at $1.59 trillion for next year.

House Republicans afterward said that the overall number was only a ceiling and that they would instead write the bills to a much lower number, leaving Democrats feeling double-crossed.

The Senate is comparatively united: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Appropriations Committee, and the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), have agreed to spend about $13.7 billion more than the caps in the debt deal by declaring that the extra money is needed for emergencies.

So, in addition to the extreme time constraints, the Republican House and Democratic Senate, along with the White House, will have to decide if overall annual spending should be the cap number in the debt deal, the lower House GOP figure or the higher bipartisan figure proposed by the Senate committee.

Whether the House can even pass Republican-written funding bills is unclear. House leaders had originally intended to bring up the agriculture funding bill but decided not to do so once it was clear the differences over spending within the party could not be resolved quickly.

One holdup on that bill was its proposed funding for WIC, the federal voucher program that helps pregnant women and young mothers afford food. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warned the bill would cut 650,000 to 750,000 beneficiaries from the program entirely and reduce benefits for an additional 4.6 million.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the panel that decides on funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, said hard-line Republicans were putting their fellow party members at risk by pushing for such deep cuts.

“Those bills are not going to become law because we’re going to have to negotiate with the Senate and the Biden administration,” he said.

Simpson said he did not understand why Republicans would put their electorally vulnerable colleagues on the spot in having to vote for those losing bills.

“I just don’t understand that logic,” he said.

“Those bills are not going to become law because we’re going to have to negotiate with the Senate and the Biden administration.”

- Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho)

The alternative is McCarthy relying on Democrats to pass funding bills, which would make the first-term speaker look weak and echo the strategy that resulted in former Speaker John Boehner being forced to give up the gavel.

For their part, McCarthy and his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), both projected confidence. “I hope there won’t be a government shutdown,” Schumer told reporters on July 27 after the Senate finished its final votes.

Simpson said he thinks there will be a stopgap bill without a shutdown, which will push the fight into December. Then the debt deal will set up a game of fiscal chicken by ratcheting down the 2024 funding total if the bills haven’t been completed by then.

“I think we’re smarter than that,” he said of the prospect of a shutdown. “As Republicans, it’s never been good policy or good politics, and we get blamed for it no matter whose fault it is.”

That perspective was not shared by Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.). At a Freedom Caucus press conference on July 26, he said, “We should not fear a government shutdown. Most of what we do up here is bad anyway.”

“Most of the American people won’t even miss [it] if the government is shut down temporarily.”

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