On the brink of a US federal government shutdown, speaker Kevin McCarthy has announced a dramatic pivot, trying to push a 45-day funding bill through the House with Democratic help – a move that could keep government open but most certainly risks his job.
Republican legislators met behind closed doors early in the morning with hours to go before the midnight deadline needed to fund government operations or face a disruptive federal closure. The new approach would leave behind aid to Ukraine, a White House priority opposed by a growing number of Republican legislators, but the plan would increase federal disaster assistance by $16 billion, meeting President Joe Biden’s full request.
The House was preparing for a quick vote on Saturday on the plan, but Democrats hit the brakes, seeking time so they could read the 71-page bill.
Across the Capitol the Senate was opening a rare weekend session and hoping to advance its own stop-gap plan, but with money for Ukraine.
“We’re going to do our job,” Mr McCarthy said after the morning meeting. “We’re going to be adults in the room. And we’re going to keep government open.”
With no deal in place before Sunday, federal workers will face furloughs, more than two million active-duty and reserve military troops will work without pay and programmes and services that Americans rely on from coast to coast will begin to face shutdown disruptions.
The sudden House action would fund government at current 2023 levels for 45 days, through to November 17th. It would move closer to the bipartisan approach under way in the Senate, which also would fund the government through that period, while adding $6 billion for Ukraine to fight the war against Russia and $6 billion for US disaster relief.
“A bipartisan, a bicameral solution is the only way forward,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. She and other Democrats decried cutting Ukraine aid.
Mr McCarthy will be forced to rely on Democrats for passage because the speaker’s hard-right flank has said it will oppose any short-term measure.
Mr McCarthy was setting up a process for voting that will require a two-thirds supermajority, about 290 votes in the 435-member House for passage. Republicans hold a 221-212 majority, with two vacancies.
Relying on Democratic votes and leaving his right-flank behind is something that the hard-right legislators have warned will risk Mr McCarthy’s job as speaker. They are almost certain to quickly file a motion to try to remove Mr McCarthy from that office, though it is not at all certain there would be enough votes to topple the speaker.
“If somebody wants to remove me because I want to be the adult in the room go ahead and try,” Mr McCarthy said of the threat to oust him. “But I think this country is too important.”
The quick pivot comes after the collapse on Friday of Mr McCarthy’s earlier plan to pass a Republican-only bill with steep spending cuts up to 30 per cent to most government agencies that the White House and Democrats rejected as too extreme.
“Our options are slipping away every minute,” said one senior Republican, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida.
Meanwhile the senate was marching ahead on its package with support from both Democrats and Republicans, but action was delayed as senators kept an eye on House developments.
“Congress has only one option to avoid a shutdown – bipartisanship,” said senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky echoed the sentiment, warning his own hard-right colleagues there was nothing to gain by shutting down the federal government. “It heaps unnecessary hardships on the American people, as well as the brave men and women who keep us safe,” Mr McConnell said.
The federal government is heading straight into a shutdown that poses grave uncertainty for federal workers in states all across America and the people who depend on them – from troops to border control agents to office workers, scientists and others.
Families that rely on food benefits and countless other programmes large and small are confronting potential interruptions or outright closures. At the airports air traffic controllers are expected to work without pay but travellers could face delays in updating their US passports or other travel documents.