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Can Republicans overcome infighting to prevent a government shutdown?

‘I am optimistic that we will eventually get something done. I’m pessimistic that it will be smooth,’ said Utah Rep. John Curtis

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Republican leaders of the pragmatic House Main Street Caucus — which includes Utah Rep. John Curtis — and the hardline House Freedom Caucus negotiated a deal on Sunday in an attempt to avoid a government shutdown.

The deal includes a small decrease in federal spending paired with new border security policies in return for 30 days of continued government funding beyond the Sept. 30 expiration.

Such a stopgap funding measure is considered a necessary step to give House Republicans time to work through the 11 remaining annual spending bills. But in its current state, the deal appears to lack the support needed to pass along partisan lines — or with help from across the aisle — in a narrowly divided and highly polarized Congress.

“I am optimistic that we will eventually get something done. I’m pessimistic that it will be smooth. And it feels like there will be a lot of pain before we get to the answer,” Curtis said in an interview with the Deseret News.

What’s in the proposed Republican spending deal?

The proposed 165-page “continuing resolution” would extend funding for Congress’ 12 appropriations bills until Oct. 31 at slightly less than FY 2023 levels, including an 8% cut in discretionary spending across all government agencies — excluding disaster, defense and veterans funding — according to outlines published by the Main Street Caucus, a group of 50 self-described “pragmatic conservatives,” and the House Freedom Caucus, whose 30-or-so members frame themselves as representing the conservative grassroots.

Accompanying these across-the-board cuts, are provisions from the Secure the Border Act, which would defund Biden administration policies related to transporting illegal immigrants and processing asylum claims. The resolution also contains measures that would facilitate the passage of the defense appropriations bill this week.

The House Rules Committee was scheduled to mark up the resolution Monday in advance of a floor vote on Thursday.

Although he originally thought the resolution would satisfy his friends on the right, with its inclusion of border security measures and government-wide spending cuts totaling 1%, in compliance with May’s debt ceiling deal, Curtis said he is no longer so certain.

House Freedom Caucus members refused to engage in the amendment process over the weekend, Curtis says, and several have now come out in opposition to the deal.

“In the last few days, they had all the chance to influence this (continuing resolution) proposal,” Curtis said. “And so you get the sense that there’s really nothing that they want other than to undermine the institution.”

Will the continuing resolution pass a House vote?

House Freedom Caucus chair, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., appeared optimistic Sunday about his negotiated deal, saying it provided “a framework for our colleagues across the House Republican Conference.”

But, simultaneously, around a dozen caucus members were voicing their disapproval.

“I will not support this 167 page surrender to Joe Biden,” Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said Sunday evening.

“NO,” was all Arizona Republican Rep. Eli Crane, another Freedom Caucus member, posted an hour later.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has repeatedly said he would prefer passing a continuing resolution over forcing a government shutdown. However, this path seems increasingly unlikely in the near term because of the conditions being demanded by Freedom Caucus members.

One such condition is a guarantee that topline spending at the end of the appropriations process be less than that of 2022. Another is that McCarthy open an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, which McCarthy did just hours after the House returned from a monthslong recess last Tuesday.

But this move seems to have done little to placate some of McCarthy’s conference colleagues who have put him in something of an impossible position, Curtis says, pledging to call a motion to remove him as speaker if he tries to pass a continuing resolution or if he tries to combine spending bills in an omnibus package to pass them more quickly.

“Instead of working together as a team, as Republicans, they have decided that they’re going to go with the winner take all philosophy,” Curtis said.

This tenuous position is partially the result of McCarthy’s slim ruling majority, which fell to just three seats after Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart left office Friday. This razor-thin margin could fall to zero with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., receiving chemotherapy treatment for blood cancer; Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., facing federal charges; and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., recovering from hip surgery.

Curtis says when Republicans work together they are able to show a stronger front to their Senate colleagues and, as a result, are able to get a product they feel happy about. One example of this, Curtis said, was the Limit, Save, Grow Act — the precursor to the Fiscal Responsibility Act which raised the national debt limit in return for spending cut commitments.

This bill gave the House a stronger position to negotiate with the president and the Senate, Curtis says, and if the Republican Conference doesn’t do something similar this time around, they will be the ones who lose.

“If we can’t send something over to them, we lose our voice, we lose our seat at the table, and we take what they send to us,” Curtis said.

However, it is precisely the outcome of the debt ceiling negotiations that Freedom Caucus members cite as the reason for their demands, saying promises made during January’s vote for House speaker were broken.

What will happen if the government shuts down?

Curtis agrees with Stewart, who said Friday he had never seen so much anger and frustration among his Republican colleagues towards the few who have made it “impossible for (McCarthy) to be successful.”

“The Freedom Caucus seems to get their way every time because they’re the only ones willing to let the institution crumble in their efforts to do the winner take all, even though they still can’t get what they want,” Curtis said.

Curtis says it’s unlikely McCarthy can strike a continuing resolution deal with a handful of Democrats to circumvent Freedom Caucus opposition, particularly if he wants to keep his position as speaker.

“I can’t imagine one that we would put forward that they would support. That’s why we have to function as a team and put something forward that we support,” Curtis said.

If a majority of the House fails to agree on a temporary stopgap spending bill by midnight on Sept. 30, all federal discretionary spending will come to a halt, impacting government services as hundreds of thousands of federal employees are furloughed until funding returns.

Even though some Freedom Caucus members, and former President Donald Trump, have said that a shutdown would cause little harm, and could even save money and provide leverage against Democrats, the opposite is true, Curtis said.

“Every shutdown, that I’m aware of, has cost us more money,” Curtis said.

According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit organization focused on educating the public about fiscal policy, government shutdowns result in lost user fees, increased premiums for government contract bids and guaranteed back pay to suspended employees.

The Republican-led government shutdowns of 2013, 2018 and 2019 are estimated to have cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion, according to one Senate report, and reduced the country’s gross domestic product by $11 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“What happens is, every day the pressure grows. Every day constituents start finding out they can’t call their Social Security office. Every day the veterans figured out they can’t call and get help with veterans issue. Every day passports are not done. And pretty soon, that pressure builds and before you know it, what you’re passing is a big, gnarly hairball omnibus (bill) with all sorts of spending in it we would never tolerate in any other way,” Curtis said.