The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to keep the government open through late November, setting up a huge showdown later this year over President Trump’s border wall that could force another shutdown before Thanksgiving.
The short-term nature of Thursday’s legislation was the result of failed efforts to complete a broader spending package ahead of Sept. 30, when government funding is set to expire for multiple agencies. The need for the stopgap measure shows how fundamental spending issues between Democrats and Republicans remain unresolved, even though lawmakers believed they had dispatched the thorniest problems in a sweeping budget deal completed over the summer.
To buy themselves more time to negotiate, lawmakers decided to delay the tougher decisions for two months. The legislation passed by the House Thursday keeps government spending flowing through Nov. 21. The vote was 301-123.
The Senate is scheduled to pass the measure next week with just days to spare ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, and Trump is expected to sign it into law.
Trump’s presidency has been marked by a number of stop-gap spending bills that either keep levels flat or ratchet them higher. The White House has called for deep spending cuts on education, housing, and foreign aid programs, among others. But Trump has also insisted on bigger budgets for defense and money to build a wall along the Mexico border. Democrats have fought back, leading to numerous compromises that have continued to add billions of dollars in new spending each year.
Major differences between the parties remain, though, particularly over whether taxpayers should finance construction of a border wall and whether Congress should agree to a demand from Democrats to direct more money for health programs, among other things.
There’s scant reason to believe lawmakers will reach resolution on these issues by Nov. 21, and many are already discussing the need to pass another short-term spending bill before Thanksgiving.
At the core of the dispute: Senate Democrats’ assertions that Republicans are diverting money to Trump’s Southern border wall that should be going for domestic programs. Republicans deny the claims, but Democrats are blocking action on spending bills for the Pentagon and other agencies as they press their complaints.
And some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, are already predicting that they are going to end up right where they were last winter. Lawmakers rejected Trump’s demand for taxpayer money to build a border wall in December, triggering a 35-day, record-long partial government shutdown.
“It’s hard for me to understand how the Republicans think this is going to play out differently than it did last year,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The shutdown was a catastrophe for the country but also for the president and the Republicans, and they are whistling past the graveyard again.”
Some Republicans are similarly pessimistic about the trajectory Congress is on, even while insisting that this time a shutdown will somehow be avoided.
“It’s deja vu all over again,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “We’re going to extend it ‘til the day before Thanksgiving break, surprise surprise. And then we’re going to extend it ‘til the day before the Christmas break, surprise surprise. And then we’re going to end up putting bad things in a bill that supposedly was agreed to months ago.”
Last winter’s shutdown ended when Trump backed down, but he quickly redirected the money he wanted from other programs by declaring a national emergency at the Mexican border. White House officials said this declaration allowed him to take $3.6 billion that had been allocated by Congress for military construction projects, and use it to build barriers instead. The Pentagon released the list of canceled projects just this month, angering Democrats and inflaming partisan tensions over spending legislation just as lawmakers returned from their summer recess last week.
Since then, Senate leaders have been trading blame over their inability to move forward to pass any of the 12 annual spending bills that are needed to keep the government funded. Passing this spending legislation is Congress’ most basic function , but dysfunction has become routine. In the House, where the majority party can operate without the need for bipartisan consensus, Democrats passed their own spending bills earlier this year, but at much higher levels for domestic programs than Republicans or the White House could accept.
Despite the challenges of divided government, there was a breakthrough in July when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) struck a deal with the Trump administration setting overall spending levels for 2020 and 2021, and suspending the federal debt ceiling until after the 2020 election.
The deal was supposed to reduce the threat of a shutdown by making it easier for spending committees to write appropriations bills, since topline numbers had been set. But the current spending struggle in the Senate has raised the possibility that even with the budget agreement in place, lawmakers might be unable to reach agreement on how to dole out around $1.4 trillion across the Pentagon and federal agencies for 2020.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters Thursday that without an agreement reached, there was the possibility that the full budget year would have to be funded by a year-long “continuing resolution” that keeps existing spending levels in place. That’s an outcome opposed by lawmakers on both sides, since it would keep Pentagon spending too low for Republicans and domestic programs like health and education too low for Democrats’ liking.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Shelby said. “I don’t know what’ll happen.”
Shelby’s committee approved several less-controversial spending bills on Thursday, and one possibility is that legislation funding some portions of the government could pass even if negotiations drag on over contentious issues like the wall. Tempers have flared on both sides as Republicans have accused Democrats of violating terms of this summer’s budget deal by seeking to advance controversial language on abortion and restrictions on border funding. Democrats claim Republicans are just as much to blame by backing up Trump’s actions on the wall.
Lawmakers said that moving beyond the current impasse will require high-level bipartisan and bicameral negotiations that have yet to begin in earnest. In one sign of progress, however, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday that he’d spoken with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and expressed optimism about chances for progress.
“I think that’s more theater than anything. I think we’ll get it done,” McCarthy said of disputes in the Senate. As the presidential election approaches, Republicans have accused Democrats of making political stands against Trump, while Democrats say Republicans are just doing the president’s bidding on the wall, which he long claimed Mexico would pay for.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and others insisted that it was incumbent on Congress to get the job done.
“There is no reason in God’s green earth we cannot complete our business on the appropriations process by Nov. 21. not a single reason except procrastination and an unwillingness to compromise,” Hoyer said.
But even writing the short-term “continuing resolution” proved arduous, as lawmakers spent days negotiating the terms for extending the Trump administration’s mult-billion-dollar bailout for farmers. Ultimately Democrats included language allowing the program to continue, but adding more requirements for transparency and reporting to Congress. At the same time Democrats secured additional Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico and other territories.
Some House liberals initially balked over supporting the short-term spending bill but ultimately decided that the real fight would come later in the year, when liberals and their allies in outside immigration groups are planning how best to take a stand against Trump’s wall and his plans to move money around to boost funding for it.
Congress is responsible for funding so-called “discretionary programs,” everything from health and education programs to the Pentagon, that account for around one-third of the approximately $4 trillion federal budget. Most of the rest of the budget goes to so-called “mandatory programs” like Medicare and Social Security that are not controlled by Congress.