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Senate takes a first step in a new plan to pressure House on spending

A government shutdown is looming even though House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Biden made an agreement earlier this year that was supposed to prevent this exact outcome.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A government shutdown is looming even though House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Biden made an agreement earlier this year that was supposed to prevent this exact outcome.

Updated September 26, 2023 at 7:05 PM ET

Congress has returned to Washington facing a government shutdown less than five days away and lawmakers are still scrambling for ways to avoid it.

On Tuesday the Senate gave up waiting for House Republicans to resolve their own differences on spending and voted 77 to 19 to start the process for considering a stop-gap spending billto keep the government open through November 17.

The bill includes $4.5 billion to support Ukraine through the defense budget, $1.65 in other aid for the country and $6 billion for disaster relief. It would also extend authorization for Federal Aviation Administration programs through the end of the year. The plan is the result of bipartisan talks but the fate of the bill is far from clear.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised the legislation ahead of the vote.

"Over the weekend Senate Democrats and Republicans together worked in good faith to reach an agreement on a continuing resolution that will keep the government open beyond September 30," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

"While for sure this bill does not have everything either side wants, it will continue to fund the government at present levels while maintaining our commitment to Ukraine's security and humanitarian needs while also ensuring that those impacted by natural disasters across the country begin to get the resources they need."

But senators have only completed one of up to six votes in a time-consuming set of procedural hurdles. That process could take days, potentially stretching beyond the September 30 deadline to prevent a shutdown.

Even if the Senate is able to quickly pass the legislation, there is no guarantee House leaders will even schedule a vote on the measure.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced support for the bill Tuesday on the Senate floor.

"Delaying action on short-term government funding doesn't advance the ball on any meaningful policy priorities," McConnell said. "Shutting the government down over a domestic budget dispute doesn't strengthen anyone's political position."

Senators still face the potential for significant delays. A single senator can force the process to stretch on longer than leaders hope. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is among the senators who have said they will not support legislation that includes extraneous money beyond the basic functions of keeping the government open.

Also, any Senate-led solution would require unanimous agreement to move fast enough to avoid a shutdown, and even then, a deal would almost certainly require votes from House Democrats in order to pass.

Senate pressures House to honor debt limit deal with Biden

McConnell has repeatedly said believes Congress should honor the agreement House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reached in May during debt limit talks with President Biden. That agreement, which set spending targets for two years, was part of a bipartisan debt limit package that overwhelmingly passed the House in a 343-117 vote.

McCarthy negotiated that plan. House Democrats agreed. So did Senate Republicans. And Senate Democrats. But a small group of hard-line conservatives in the House immediately rejected the plan for failing to agree to deeper spending cuts. The group pressured McCarthy into backing away from the agreement.

For the past several months, McCarthy has accepted the conservative demands as he attempts to navigate a razor-thin majority of just four votes.

McCarthy has said, repeatedly, that he does not want to see the government shut down.

"I don't think anybody wins a shutdown," McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol last week. "Think for one moment what a shutdown does. It stops paying our troops. How do you have more leverage in that situation? I've watched shutdown after shutdown, everybody loses."

House Republicans spent the weekend setting up a plan to hold votes on several of the 12 annual funding bills that include deep spending cuts. Those bills align with conservative demands, but they will not prevent a shutdown.

McCarthy has also said he plans to offer his own partisan stop-gap spending bill in the coming days.

House could still block a stopgap spending bill

Even if the Senate is able to move quickly on a stopgap, it's unclear if McCarthy would allow a Senate plan to get a vote. Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz has threatened to begin the formal process to remove McCarthy as speaker if he does not comply with far-right demands.

McCarthy is also under pressure from former President Trump, who has pushed for spending cuts. Trump is in close contact with some of the GOP holdouts in the House and has posted publicly in favor of cuts.

"The Republicans lost big on Debt Ceiling, got NOTHING, and now are worried that they will be BLAMED for the Budget Shutdown. Wrong!!! Whoever is President will be blamed, in this case, Crooked (as Hell!) Joe Biden!" Trump posted Sunday on his social media site Truth Social.

A small bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the Problem Solvers Caucus has begun work on a plan to use a House procedure known as a discharge petition to get around McCarthy and force a vote on spending. That plan could take weeks and would require at least 218 votes, meaning Democrats and Republicans would have to agree to the strategy.

For now, that leaves the fate of government spending largely in McCarthy's hands.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.