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Congress moves into crisis mode as time runs short to prevent government shutdown

2023-09-26
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WASHINGTON - Congress is rushing headlong into crisis mode Tuesday with a government shutdown days away, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces an insurgency from hard-right Republicans eager to slash spending even if it means halting pay for the military and curtailing federal services for millions of Americans. There's no clear path ahead as lawmakers return with tensions high and options limited. The House is expected to launch an evening vote on a package of bills to fund parts of the government, but it's not at all clear that McCarthy has the support needed as holdouts demand steeper spending cuts. "It's easy," McCarthy quipped Tuesday when asked about keeping the government open. But with just five days to go before Saturday's deadline, McCarthy is reviving his plan for a stopgap measure to prevent a federal shutdown that was already rejected outright by a handful of hard-right Republicans who say they will never vote for it, denying him a majority. The right flank in the House has seized control -- small in numbers but with outsized influence and egged on by former President Donald Trump, the party's front-runner to confront President Joe Biden in the 2024 election, who is encouraging them to "shut it down." RELATED: Federal government shutdown looming: What it means and who won't get paychecks Meanwhile, the Senate, trying to stave off a federal closure, is preparing its own bipartisan plan for a stopgap measure to keep offices funded in the days before Saturday's deadline. But the Senate's effort has become tangled over tacking on additional funds for Ukraine in its war against Russia. While a vast majority from both parties in Congress supports the war effort, standing ready to approve supplemental funds Biden has requested for Ukraine, a small yet growing number of Republicans in both the House and the Senate oppose spending more money helping Ukraine. Against the mounting chaos, Biden warned the Republican conservatives off their hard-line tactics, saying funding the federal government is "one of the most basic fundamental responsibilities of Congress." Biden implored the House Republicans not to renege on the debt deal he struck earlier this year with McCarthy, which set the federal government funding levels and was signed into law after approval by both the House and the Senate. "We made a deal, we shook hands, and said this is what we're going to do. Now, they're reneging on the deal," Biden said late Monday. RELATED: Kevin McCarthy juggles a government shutdown, Biden impeachment inquiry as House returns for fall A government shutdown would disrupt the U.S. economy and the lives of millions of Americans who work for the government or rely on federal services -- from the military personnel and air traffic controllers who would be asked to work without pay to some 7 million people in the Women, Infants and Children program, including half the babies born in the U.S., who could lose access to nutritional benefits, according to the White House. The standoff comes against the backdrop of the 2024 elections as former Trump officials are floating their own plans to slash government and the federal workforce if the former president retakes the White House. It is setting up a split-screen later this week as House Republicans hold their first Biden impeachment inquiry hearing probing the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden, as Congress spirals closer to a shutdown. "Unless you get everything, shut it down!" Trump wrote in all capital letters on social media. "It's time Republicans learned how to fight!" McCarthy arrived at the Capitol after a tumultuous week in which a handful of hard-right Republicans torpedoed his latest plans to advance a usually popular defense funding bill. They brought the chamber to a standstill, and leaders sent lawmakers home for the weekend with no endgame in sight. McCarthy, of California, was hopeful the latest plan on a package of four bills, to fund Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and State and Foreign Operations, would kickstart the process. He is also reviving earlier ideas for a stopgap bill that would fund the government while also adding strict border security provisions that conservatives want but Democrats widely reject and even some in McCarthy's own Republican Party cannot embrace. "I'm working all my time to make sure that there would not be a shutdown," McCarthy insisted Tuesday. But at least one top Trump ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who is also close to McCarthy, said she would be a "hard no" on the vote Tuesday to open debate, known as the Rule, because the package of bills continues to provide at least $300 million for the war in Ukraine. Other hard-right conservatives and allies of Trump may follow her lead. "Now you have a couple of new people thinking about voting against the Rule," said Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., referring to the upcoming procedural vote. While their numbers are just a handful, the hard-right Republican faction holds sway because the House majority is narrow and McCarthy needs almost every vote from his side for partisan bills without Democratic support. The speaker has given the holdouts many of their demands, but it still has not been enough as they press for more -- including gutting funding for Ukraine, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Washington last week is vital to winning the war against Russia. The hard-line Republicans want McCarthy to drop the deal he made with Biden and stick to earlier promises for spending cuts he made to them in January to win their votes for the speaker's gavel, citing the nation's rising debt load. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a key Trump ally leading the right flank, said on Fox News Channel that a shutdown is not optimal but "it's better than continuing on the current path that we are to America's financial ruin." Gaetz, who has also threated to call a vote to oust McCarthy from his job, wants Congress to do what it rarely does anymore: debate and approve each of the 12 annual bills needed to fund the various departments of government -- typically a process that takes weeks, if not months. Even if the House is able to complete its work this week on some of those bills, which is highly uncertain, they would still need to be merged with similar legislation from the Senate, another lengthy process. Meantime, senators have been drafting a temporary measure, called a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep government funded past Saturday but are struggling over whether or not to add the Ukraine aid, knowing it will face steep resistance in the House. A spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget said the Democratic administration would continue to work with members of both parties in Congress to secure supplemental funds and ensure efforts to support Ukraine continue alongside other key priorities like disaster relief.

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