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Countdown to the Shutdown


With only 10 days to avert a government shutdown, House Republicans are scrambling for a plan.

Ten days — 240 hours, or 14,440 minutes. No matter how you do the math, members of Congress don’t have much time to reach consensus on how to provide funding for federal agencies for fiscal year (FY) 2024. They must approve legislation by 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30 to keep the government funded or large portions of the government will shut down.


Here is where negotiations stand.


How close are lawmakers to a deal?

On Sunday night, members of the conservative-leaning House Freedom Caucus and the more moderate GOP Main Street Caucus announced they had devised a short-term option to avert a government shutdown.


While those two factions coming together is notable, no one actually seems to like their plan, which cuts funding for all discretionary federal programs except defense, veterans, and disaster relief by eight percent. Their plan also calls for restarting work on the U.S.-Mexico border wall, boosting border security funding, and reducing the number of migrants eligible for asylum.


Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), leader of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative faction in the House, was quick to criticize the bill. He told The Associated Press, “There’s quite a few people that are against it right now.” He was right. By the end of the day Monday, 16 GOP lawmakers had pledged to vote against the plan. (House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., cannot afford to lose more than four votes from his own caucus when he has no support from Democrats. This week, that number is reduced to one since three GOP lawmakers are temporarily away from Washington, D.C.)


On Tuesday, Speaker McCarthy appeared ready to call the GOP opponents’ bluffs after the House Rules Committee approved a measure allowing the Freedom-Main Street plan to advance to a floor vote. The Rules Committee vote was a feat in itself since that panel includes Freedom Caucus members who have been a thorn in Speaker McCarthy’s side. (Having support from all GOP lawmakers on this panel buoyed Speaker McCarthy.)


But, at the last minute, the speaker opted not to move forward with a procedural vote that, if agreed to, would have allowed a final House vote on the Freedom-Main Street plan. (That decision came right before the defeat of a procedural motion to move the FY 2024 defense spending bill forward. In a chamber where the majority controls almost everything, procedural defeats like that are rare, and it shows just how chaotic operations in the House have become.) According to a Roll Call story released yesterday evening, House Republicans are now refining the Freedom-Main Street proposal in hopes they can win support from conservative holdouts.


But even if they do – and even if the bill passes the House – it still won’t avert a shutdown.


That’s because it took very little time for Senate Democrats to reject the Freedom-Main Street offer. The proposal could “be boiled down to two words: Slapdash, reckless,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Slapdash, because it’s not a serious proposal for avoiding a shutdown, and reckless because if passed would cause immense harm to so many priorities that help the American people.”


The Senate has not offered an alternative, however, other than passing a “clean” short-term spending bill. (“Clean,” in this case, meaning there are no other provisions, like the House Republicans’ immigration provisions, attached to the bill. The only thing a “clean bill” would do is extend funding for a certain amount of time.)

With the path forward as clear as mud, House Speaker McCarthy is preparing lawmakers for a long weekend. Earlier this week he told members of Congress “you’re not going home” until they pass legislation that would keep the government open after September 30.


Lawmakers have, of course, brought the country to the brink before only to avoid a shutdown at the last minute. Let’s take a look at what some of those deals looked like.


The ghosts of brinksmanship past

The politics website FiveThirtyEight has looked at Congress’ history of “budget procrastination.”


One of the early examples was in 1998. Though neither party fully threatened a shutdown at this point, President Clinton did have to sign a series of short-term funding agreements to keep the government operational. Ultimately, President Clinton agreed to an omnibus spending bill (an omnibus bill is when all or most appropriations bills are combined into one). As The Washington Post reported at the time, the omnibus was the “product of closed-door negotiations and horse-trading between the White House and Congress’s top GOP leaders, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).”


When lawmakers failed in 2000 to get all of the fiscal year 2001 spending bills done on time, President Clinton said he would only sign one-day continuing resolutions into law to keep the government operational. Since 2000 was an election year, this tactic forced lawmakers off the campaign trail and back to Washington, D.C. to get their spending work done. Despite that inconvenience, it took 21 continuing resolutions before Congress finally came up will a full-year spending plan. But they did eventually get there.


At other times — fiscal years 2007, 2011, and 2013, for example — federal lawmakers avoided a shutdown by approving a full-year continuing resolution. In other words, instead of approving individual increases for each department or an omnibus spending bill that increased spending, lawmakers simply came up with a formula and set spending levels for all departments using that formula. Many House Republicans have rejected this approach this time around, however.


Who will Americans blame for a shutdown?

In remarks at a press conference last week, Speaker McCarthy said, “Nobody wins in a government shutdown.” (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a very similar statement yesterday post-procedural vote chaos.)


While that is certainly true, which party are Americans more likely to blame? Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) seems to think it would be his party. “We usually get blamed for it, one way or the other,” Sen. Thune told NBC News. (Sen. McConnell made the same assessment yesterday.)


Sen. Thune has studied his history.


According to FiveThirtyEight, when the federal government shutdown for 21 days in 2013 (when lawmakers were fighting over FY 2014 funding), the GOP took most of the blame.


At that time, President Obama’s “average approval rating held steady at around 44 percent throughout the shutdown,” but Congress’s “approval rating went from 19 percent in September to 11 percent in the middle of the shutdown to nine percent in November.” Democrats at that point also gained in generic ballot polls. (This query simply asks which party voters would rather have in charge of the federal legislative branch.) On that question, Democrats’ lead rose by almost four points between Sept. 22 and Oct. 28, 2013.


Additionally, an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted just after the 2013 shutdown found the GOP’s favorability rating was 32 percent, the lowest ever in that poll. “Disapproval over the GOP’s handling of the shutdown — already a dismal 63 percent on the eve of the shutdown — surged to 77 percent by the time it ended. Even Republicans and self-identified tea partiers disapproved,” FiveThirtyEight noted.


CNN reporter Grace Sparks has examined the public perception fallout from previous shutdowns. Among Sparks’ findings:

  • The shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 were “clearly blamed” on the Republicans who controlled Congress and not on President Clinton.

  • There was a partial shutdown in November 1995 and a full shutdown from December 1995 into January 1996. Seven polls were conducted prior to, during, and after those shutdowns asking who was to blame. Republicans “won” every time. Between 43 percent and 51 percent blamed GOP lawmakers while between 25 percent and 34 percent blamed President Clinton.

  • As noted above, the government almost shut down again in 1998. Only one poll was taken during that skirmish and it found 56 percent of Americans would blame the Republican leaders in Congress if the government shut down.


As in 1998, there is not much polling available as Congress heads into this potential shutdown. No one has assigned blame … yet … but one poll has made it clear Americans overwhelmingly believe the two parties should work together to avoid a shutdown. According to a survey fielded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, 91 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans want the two parties to negotiate.


History shows GOP won’t get cuts, policies it wants

In a memo released earlier this week, the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) noted that if the federal government shuts down on Oct. 1, it will be the sixth shutdown since 1995. Each of these shutdowns came about because a faction of lawmakers used the must-pass spending legislation to try to “secure their own priorities.”


The shutdown tactic has never worked, the USCC found. The memo said, “While members of both parties have attempted to leverage the necessity of an open and operating government, no one has successfully used a shutdown to change policy in at least the last 25 years.” (Sen. McConnell also made that point yesterday in remarks to the press after watching the House chaos.)


If they didn’t work, how did those shutdowns end?


The USCC explained, “Each of the previous shutdowns came to an end when the leveraging party relented and supported/allowed for the passage of a bill to reopen the government. This is usually the result of a combination of public pressure and a realization that shutting down the government as a means of leverage is a flawed legislative strategy, and ultimately bad for the American people.”


That’s a hard lesson Congress appears to be on track to learning again.

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