House passes budget extension to avert government shutdown — by doing nothing

On Capitol Hill, Thursday was a rare day in which the House could do something important by doing nothing at all.

The task: stave off a federal government shutdown by passing a budget extension that would get the government through the weekend. It wouldn’t require a vote. It wouldn’t even take the whole 435-member House.

Because of an unusual procedural tactic, all that was required was for a handful of lawmakers to show up — and then shut up. Their silence would be interpreted as “unanimous consent,” and the bill would pass.

Some doubters thought that even this might be too much to ask. But this Congress, which has had a fantastic amount of practice in doing nothing, proved them wrong.

“I ask unanimous consent,” Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.) said in Thursday’s session, to “concur in the Senate amendments.”

When the time came: silence.

One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Done.

“Without objection, the Senate amendments are concurred in,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who presided over the five-minute, 46-second session.

With that, the House passed a measure to get the United States through Tuesday. By then, the chamber is expected to have approved a budget to pay the government’s bills all the way to Nov. 18.

The Senate agreed to that longer-term legislation on Monday, ending an accidental drama in which Congress threatened — for the second time this year — to shut the government’s doors.

The fight was about whether funding for disaster victims in this fiscal year — distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — should be “offset” by cuts in other parts of the federal budget. Republicans said yes. Democrats said no. The battle wasn’t settled so much as canceled, when FEMA said it didn’t need the money after all.

But the House still had to approve a funding bill, and the House is on recess this week. So leaders assembled a “House” on Thursday that could have fit in a Volkswagen Beetle.

There was Harris, in the speaker’s chair. There was Culberson, whose job it was to introduce the measure. And there was Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a lone Democrat there to keep an eye on things. There had been worries that a tea party lawmaker would show up and shout out an objection — derailing the whole shebang and starting the “government shutdown” clocks again.

But none showed. And two seconds of silence was all it took.

A little more than five minutes after it started, the session was over. A white-gloved staff member gathered up the House’s ebony-and-silver mace — an eagle-topped totem of American democracy — and walked out to wait for an elevator.

“Once you get to yes, things can move quickly. But getting to yes took way too long in this case,” Van Hollen said afterward. “Hopefully we won’t have a repeat of this situation” in the coming months.

But it’s not even certain that the House will get through next week without another cliffhanger. Harris, fresh from presiding over the chamber, said he is leaning toward voting against the next seven-week budget. It contains too much funding for clean-energy loan programs like the ones that helped the now-infamous failed solar company Solyndra, he said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Harris said. “Nothing is being done normally in Washington anymore.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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