Richmond Times-Dispatch: Congress passes another stop-gap to prevent government shutdown. Now what?


Congress has passed another stopgap spending bill to prevent a federal government shutdown, with the Senate and House of Representatives approving it on Thursday afternoon.

Now what?

The third continuing resolution in less than four months buys time for a divided Congress — and a divided Republican majority in the House — to pass 12 appropriations bills to authorize federal spending in a fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

With funding set to expire on Friday for five government departments — agriculture, energy, veterans affairs, transportation, and housing and urban development — the new stopgap extends the deadline to March 1. For the rest of the government, the deadline moves from Feb. 2 to March 8.

“I’m nervous,” confessed Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a video conference with news media on Wednesday. “I’m nervous that the delay means you could delay again when we get into March.”

Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., issued a joint statement after the 77-18 Senate vote Thursday.

“It’s unfortunate that we once again need to step in at the eleventh hour to avert a government shutdown due to Congress’ inability to pass full spending bills in a timely manner,” they said.

“It’s time for Congress to start treating funding deadlines seriously and provide the government and the American people with the funding needed to respond to the novel needs of a new fiscal year,” the senators said. “We look forward to working with our colleagues these next six weeks to fulfill Congress’ most basic duty and finally push a bipartisan long-term agreement through the finish line.”

Even the stopgap measure had faced opposition from conservative Republicans in the House, who objected to an agreement that new House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., reached with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., more than a week ago that sets the top-line spending limit at $1.66 trillion. That ceiling is consistent with the deal — and side deal — that President Joe Biden reached with then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in late May to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a potential default on the national debt, but members of the House Freedom Caucus, now led by Rep. Bob Good, R-5th, opposed it.

Good, in a speech on the House floor, deplored the failure of the narrow Republican majority to assert itself to demand cuts in federal spending and tougher security on the U.S. border with Mexico.

He said House Republicans could have taken advantage of rising concern among Democrats over border security, attached their demands to the resolution “and dared the Senate to vote against it,” he said.

“We’re going to pass another piece of major legislation predominantly with Democrat votes … when we have the majority in the House of Representatives,” he said.

The House approved the resolution on a 314-108 vote, with 107 Republicans voting for it and 106 against it.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, expressed relief over averting a shutdown, which would hurt Virginia more than most states because of its reliance on federal defense spending.

But Spanberger acknowledged that “we have only kicked the can down the road until March.”

“We are long overdue to end this cycle of political games, half measures, and Groundhog Day funding practices,” she said. “We need to fund our government in a responsible way, so that Congress can tackle its long to-do list: supporting Ukraine in its fight for its freedom, securing America’s southern border, passing the Farm Bill, providing humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza, supporting our Israeli allies in their fight against terrorism, and addressing the raging fentanyl crisis in our communities.”

Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-4th, said Republicans had “turned the House into a three-ringed circus.”

“It’s time for Republicans’ ringleader, Speaker Johnson, to abandon his hyperpartisan approach to governing and acknowledge the reality that any viable funding package will be bipartisan,” McClellan said.

Meanwhile, the Senate is pushing a bipartisan agreement with Biden on a supplemental aid package that includes up to $60 billion in military assistance to Ukraine for the ongoing battle against a Russian invasion launched almost two years go.

“The clock is ticking on Ukraine,” Warner said in a conference call with news media on Thursday. “Without financial assistance, Ukraine is just not going to be successful.”

The tradeoff for Republicans in both chambers is a major change in the president’s policy for securing the U.S. border with Mexico, as well as additional money to do it. Biden included about $14 billion for enhanced border security in the $110 billion supplemental aid bill he introduced last year, but Johnson, the new speaker, told the president in a meeting on Wednesday that it is not enough without significant changes in U.S. policy toward illegal immigration.

Warner said Republican concern about border security is warranted. “I believe we have a crisis at the border,” he said.

Kaine, speaking before the meeting between Johnson and Biden, said he is confident an agreement is within reach.

“My sense is we’re pretty close to an announcement about a bipartisan border security deal that will at least pass the Senate with a significant bipartisan majority, and that would open funding for Ukraine,” he said.

Ukraine and the border are not the only hot-button issues at stake in the supplemental aid package, which includes both military assistance for Israel and humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza in response to a war that began after Hamas, the military group ruling Gaza, launched a surprise attack in Israel that killed more than 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostages. More than 24,000 people have died in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes and ground assaults.

Congress has to decide how much humanitarian aid to send to Gaza and how much military aid to give Israel, as well as conditions and expectations for its use, Kaine said. “We very much support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, but we don’t want that to be an all-purpose green light war against Gazans or Palestinians.”

But first, Congress had to fund the government, at least until it can reach agreement on how to appropriate the $1.66 trillion in the top-line deal across 12 spending bills.

The question remains whether Johnson, elected as speaker after a three-week impasse in October, is able to muster enough votes in the House under a procedure that requires a two-thirds majority, or 290 votes.

“The only way the speaker gets anything done — it’s just plain math — he’s got to have the Democrats,” Warner said. “There is no other path other than a strong bipartisan majority to get anything done in the House of Representatives.”

Of course, then-Speaker McCarthy took that path twice and it cost him his job.

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