WASHINGTON – The federal government headed toward its second shutdown in three weeks late Thursday as congressional leaders struggled to rally support for a sweeping half-trillion-dollar spending deal amid last-minute objections from a conservative in the Senate and attacks from the left and right in the House.
The Senate was poised to pass the measure by early this morning despite Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., throwing up last-minute procedural roadblocks. But the fate of the bill was uncertain in the House, where conservatives rebelled against adding billions of dollars to the nation's debt and liberals demanded action on protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Late Thursday, the spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, John Czwartacki, said that “agencies are now being urged to review and prepare for (a) lapse” in funding after midnight.
Republicans and some Democrats repeatedly had insisted that they would avoid a repeat of last month's three-day partial government shutdown, but congressional dysfunction gripped Congress in an unfolding drama Thursday on both ends of the Capitol.
Paul, making use of Senate rules that allow individual senators to slow down proceedings that often require the consent of all, demanded a vote on his amendment that would demonstrate how the two-year budget deal breaks past pledges to rein in federal spending.
“I can't in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” Paul said on the Senate floor as evening pushed into night.
Paul objected after a visibly irritated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to move to a vote. Then Paul launched into a lengthy floor speech deriding bipartisan complicity on deficit spending while the country goes “on and on and on finding new wars to fight that make no sense.” The senator direly predicted a “day of reckoning,” possibly in the form of the collapse of the stock market.
Senate leaders remained confident the spending deal would pass easily in the end. But absent an agreement among all senators on timing, final passage would be delayed until early today and the federal government could begin to shut down, at least briefly.
Even bigger problems appeared to be surfacing in the House, where liberals led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., were incensed that the plight of young undocumented immigrants who face the threat of deportation was not addressed in the spending bill.
Pelosi planned to vote against the bill. And despite initially suggesting that she would not be urging fellow Democrats to follow her lead, she increasingly appeared to be doing exactly that.
At a closed-door evening meeting of House Democrats, Pelosi told lawmakers: “We have a moment. They don't have the votes. All of us should use our leverage. This is what we believe in,” according to one House Democrat in the room, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the private conversation.
Pelosi is under intense pressure from immigration activists and liberals in her caucus to take a stand for the “dreamers” – undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children who face losing work permits granted by President Barack Obama under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but rescinded by President Donald Trump.
Supporters of these immigrants have watched in growing outrage as Democrats have failed repeatedly to achieve results for the cause. They want to see Democrats stand strong, even after last month's shutdown failed to achieve anything more than a commitment from McConnell to debate the issue on the Senate floor.
But many House Democrats are skittish over forcing another shutdown, especially with Senate Democrats largely on board with the spending deal. Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., negotiated the package with McConnell, with input from Pelosi and Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Several Democrats emerged from the more than hourlong caucus meeting insisting that there was not a firm effort by party leaders to oppose the bill and perhaps force a shutdown. But many appeared resolved to hold the line against any deal that did not address the party's immigration concerns.
“I think there's a very strong sentiment that this is a moment that we can't let pass,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich. “We've allowed these moments to pass in the past. This is a moment we can't let pass without doing everything we can to move forward on DACA. And all we're looking for is a simple statement from Paul Ryan.”
House conservatives were also balking, objecting to the enormous increase in federal spending, most of which would be piled onto the deficit with minimal attempts to offset it.
Earlier Thursday, Ryan expressed confidence that the bill, which delivers a military funding boost sought by the GOP alongside increases in domestic spending favored by Democrats, would pass.
“There is widespread agreement in both parties that we have cut the military too much, that our service members are suffering as a result, and that we need to do better,” he said.
But the outlook was growing cloudier as the evening wore on. Lawmakers and aides said planning was underway to pass a very short-term spending extension to keep the government open past midnight, if necessary.
If the larger spending bill does pass, its impact would be wide-ranging – renewing several large health care programs, suspending the national debt limit for a year and extending billions of dollars of expiring business tax breaks.
The cost of those provisions exceeds $560 billion, though lawmakers included some revenue-raising offsets, such as increases in customs fees and a sell-off from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
In comparison, the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill that was passed at the bottom of a global recession under Obama was estimated to cost $787 billion over 10 years. Republicans were nearly unanimous in opposing that measure in their clamor for fiscal restraint in the face of growing deficits – demands largely drowned out now in the Trump era.
This spending bill, proposed amid an economic boom, could be the last major piece of legislation passed before November's midterm elections, barring a breakthrough on the thorny immigration debate.
Under the deal, existing spending limits would be raised by a combined $296 billion through 2019. The caps were put in place in 2011 after a fiscal showdown between Obama and GOP congressional leaders, who demanded spending austerity.
The agreement includes an additional $160 billion in uncapped funding for overseas military and State Department operations, continuing a costly line item that dates back to the immediate response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
And about $90 billion more would be spent on disaster aid for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires. Tax provisions would add another $17 billion to the cost of the bill.
The bill also includes a provision suspending the federal debt limit until March 1 of next year – after November's midterm elections.