Inside the scramble to avoid a government shutdown — and why it will likely fail
Reps. Mike Simpson, John Curtis and Burgess Owens say a government shutdown is likely as House Republican holdouts reject temporary funding measures in an attempt to return to “regular order”
The prospect of a government shutdown has become almost inevitable in the minds of the country’s members of Congress.
According to U.S. representatives in the middle of spending talks on Capitol Hill, attempts to fund the federal government beyond Saturday’s fiscal deadline are appearing more unlikely as a handful of House GOP holdouts — empowered by the party’s narrow majority — demand steep spending cuts from Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy or refuse to support any short-term funding bill.
“I’m not very optimistic about avoiding a shutdown,” Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis told the Deseret News Wednesday.
While Republicans are mostly united over cutting congressional spending — with $33 trillion in debt and frustration over last-minute votes on massive spending bills — they disagree over which tactics are effective in bringing about change to annual spending negotiations.
“The challenge within the Republican conference is not whether we ought to reduce spending. It’s how much and how fast,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, in an interview with the Deseret News on Wednesday.
Despite McCarthy’s best efforts to negotiate a short-term funding package containing budget reductions and border security provisions, a small group of House Republicans, mostly belonging to the House Freedom Caucus, have doubled down on opposing “continuing resolutions” — whether from the House or the Senate — in an attempt to return the appropriations process to “regular order.”
But, without some sort of compromise, gridlock and shutdown is all that can be expected.
“In my opinion, there will probably be a government shutdown for at least a few days, maybe a week, maybe two weeks,” Simpson said. “I don’t know how we’d get it all done by Saturday night at midnight.”
A tale of two chambers and two continuing resolutions
Following a week characterized by dysfunction, the House succeeded in passing a rule Tuesday allowing the chamber to move forward on four of the 12 annual spending bills in advance of a vote on a temporary funding measure scheduled for Friday.
This last ditch effort to avoid a shutdown would likely resemble the deal negotiated last week, Simpson says, which would extend funding until Oct. 31, at slightly less than FY 2023 levels.
The earlier deal, which never received a floor vote, included an 8% cut in discretionary spending across all government agencies — excluding disaster, defense and veterans agencies — and included provisions from the Secure the Border Act.
Curtis said this would have been a “huge win” for conservatives and would have served as much needed leverage in countering a Senate proposal. He hopes the conference can pass the four spending bills currently on the floor — agriculture, defense, homeland security and state-foreign operations — “to show good faith that we can get the 12 done” and increase the chances of 218 Republicans backing a temporary funding bill this weekend.
However, Curtis is skeptical that any attempts to placate the party’s right wing will work.
“I think based upon what’s happened in the last few days, we could put any policy they wanted in the world in that (continuing resolution) and they wouldn’t support it,” Curtis said.
The Senate advanced its own “continuing resolution,” on Tuesday, which has faced opposition from some Senate Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who disagree with the inclusion of billions of dollars of support for Ukraine. Absent unanimous consent, however, a final vote on the bill will be delayed until Sunday, after a shutdown has already begun.
And even if the Senate were to pass the bill, Republicans in the House have signaled it would be dead on arrival.
“I do not trust anything coming from a Democrat-led Senate. I can’t see myself buying into anything they’re doing because everything they do will strip away the things we want to accomplish,” Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens told the Deseret News on Wednesday.
Owens, who said he would “absolutely” support a House GOP resolution, notes a Senate-produced bill would almost certainly be a “clean” continuing resolution, leaving spending at 2023 levels, a non starter for most House Republicans.
Over the coming days, the House’s goal will be to flip the script, Owens said, saying Senate Democrats are not prioritizing American interests if they refuse a funding measure tied to border security legislation.
“I see it this way, whatever we present is going to have to go to the Senate, and the Senate will make a decision on whether they want to shut down the government versus shut down the border. We’re saying, ‘Shut down the border, let’s continue this process of making sure our government runs well,’” Owens said.
Simpson, who has represented eastern Idaho since 1999, agrees with the Freedom Caucus’ goal of returning to single-issue spending bills, which was the standard previous to the mid nineties.
He says breaking down the appropriations process by category, with time to debate and amend each bill separately, allows for greater input from members of Congress and tends to prevent irresponsible spending.
However, he believes the demands of the conference’s most outspoken holdouts are unrealistic — cutting too much too fast and ensuring a painful shutdown.
“A shutdown is never good policy or good politics, and as I’ve said many times, Republicans are gonna get blamed for it no matter what,” Simpson said, explaining how federal employees, including military members, and businesses that rely on federal oversight, would be greatly impacted by a shutdown. “That’s just the reality. And some of these members need to recognize that.”
In recent weeks, members of the House Freedom Caucus, and others, went beyond the spending constraints secured during May’s debt ceiling deal to demand next year’s spending levels fall below those of 2022. This has resulted in “dramatic cuts” that “would be devastating” to western states because they would gut the budgets of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Simpson said.
McCarthy has also agreed to cuts that would affect lower-income individuals who rely on federal government subsidies in housing, food and energy.
But little of this will matter in the end, Simpson said, because any spending bill passed by the House will go to the Senate, which will attempt to undo much, if not all, of the Republican cuts. The unwillingness of some of his colleagues to consider what can survive a process of bipartisan compromise makes their proposals “unrealistic” and all but ensures a protracted shutdown, according to Simpson.
“I don’t know what their final objective is, is the problem. I know that they want to cut spending, and they want to do it dramatically. I want to reduce spending, I just think you have to make it at a slower process, and make reasonable adjustments in reducing spending,” Simpson said.
Curtis also said a continuing resolution should be contingent on a return to some semblance of “regular order,” where appropriations bills are worked through one at a time, but says House Republican holdouts are “overplaying their hand” and will “end up with a worse deal” than if they were open to some degree of pragmatic compromise.
Unlike his colleagues, Owens expressed optimism about the debates among House Republicans as well as the ability of his conference to avoid a shutdown.
“We still have to work through some things, obviously, but our conference is getting closer to being on the same page as we move forward,” he said. “We have different interests, different districts they’re supporting and they have to represent, but we all have the same endgame.”
Speaker McCarthy, the only man for the job?
While some project the next step is likely the passage of a continuing resolution in the Senate, which would probably then be rejected by the House, leading to an extended shutdown, Curtis said it is just as likely that House Republicans pass their own resolution to send to the Senate, or that a group of House Republicans and Democrats join forces to circumvent the speaker to advance a proposal the Senate will accept.
Either way, “It’s near impossible to see how this plays out,” he said.
Curtis doubts the eventual bipartisan agreement will put McCarthy’s speakership at risk, saying “there’s a growing awareness” he’s the only man for the job.
“Nobody can come up with a name of somebody who could do this better than Kevin is doing it,” Curtis said. “And I think that has actually made his seat just a tad bit more secure.”
Owens said “the most important thing” is for House Republicans to put their differences aside to “make sure the American people are looked out for, that we’re protecting them, allowing us to have more time to have to discuss this process, and then get through more appropriations (bills) and then allow the process to continue from there.”
Whatever the outcome of coming days and weeks, however, Simpson said the process is bound to keep repeating itself until substantive procedural changes — the kind sought by GOP holdouts — are secured.
When Simpson entered office, he said, the House passed its annual spending bills during a July “appropriations season.” This was followed by a reconciliation of House and Senate proposals by congressional staffers in August so that both chambers could amend and vote on final versions in September — long before a continuing resolution, or government shutdown, came knocking.
“I want to get back to that. I will tell you, every appropriation member wants to get back to that. But that means we have to have floor time in order to pass these bills,” Simpson said. “It takes some time. But the leadership has to give us the time on the floor to pass these.”