The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress plans Thursday votes to avert shutdown with just hours to spare before deadline

Emerging legislation would not address raising the debt ceiling, which Republicans have refused to support

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) leaves after speaking to reporters Sept. 28 on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
3 min

The House and Senate are rushing to vote Thursday on a short-term spending bill that would fund the government into early December, aiming to overcome last-minute political snags that risk the potential for a shutdown.

The tight timeline leaves lawmakers with just hours to spare before funding lapses for key federal agencies and operations, an outcome that Democrats and Republicans have pledged to avoid given the potential for dire consequences during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate is set to take the first steps Thursday morning, holding a series of votes on a measure that sustains current spending levels while provisioning billions of dollars to respond to two recent hurricanes and assist Afghan refugees. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced the plans late Wednesday, hours after he urged the chamber to act expediently.

Want to get a morning briefing straight to your phone? Text JOIN to 63706 to sign up.

“We can approve this measure quickly and send it to the House, so it can reach the president’s desk before funding expires midnight tomorrow,” he said in a speech earlier in the day. “With so many critical issues to address, the last thing the American people need right now is a government shutdown.”

Republicans say they share a desire to stave off a government shutdown, but some party lawmakers raised policy concerns behind the scenes earlier Wednesday that stalled the measure from swift passage. Some aimed to allocate money for Israel and its missile defense system, for example, and others raised issues related to the process for vetting Afghan refugees newly coming to the United States.

What to know about a potential government shutdown

In the end, Republicans secured the ability to offer a number of amendments. That includes a proposal from Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) that would prohibit the government from enforcing any federal mandate requiring private employers and employees to obtain the coronavirus vaccine. President Biden earlier this month ordered businesses with more than 100 workers to require immunizations or subject them to weekly testing.

The funding stopgap essentially would sustain federal agencies’ existing budgets until Dec. 3. At that point, Congress must either adopt another short-term fix, known as a continuing resolution, or take more decisive action to approve a set of appropriations bills that could boost agencies’ spending into 2022. No matter the course, the vote would only delay another fight between Democrats and Republicans at a moment of great acrimony over federal spending.

Yellen tells Congress that U.S. will run out of debt-ceiling flexibility on Oct. 18

In the meantime, lawmakers have found themselves locked in a partisan battle over another fiscal deadline — a need to raise the country’s debt ceiling before Oct. 18. That borrowing limit allows the government to issue debt to pay its bills. Failing to raise the debt limit could plunge the country into default because the government spends so much more money than it brings in through revenue. Experts say a default would cause a financial calamity that could spark a U.S. recession and rattle global markets.

After raising the debt limit for decades, Republicans in recent years have leveraged it to enact spending cuts while also threatening government default. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

But Senate Republicans have blocked repeated Democratic efforts this week to raise the debt ceiling, including one bill that had coupled it with additional government funding. GOP lawmakers led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have said they do not intend to shutter federal agencies — but rather seek to oppose Democrats as they pursue approximately $4 trillion in new spending initiatives sought by Biden.

“Bipartisanship isn’t a light switch that Democrats can switch on when they need to borrow money and flip off when they want to spend money,” McConnell said on the chamber floor Tuesday.

Senate Republicans block measure to fund government, stave off U.S. default

The Republicans’ opposition has angered Democrats, who argue they agreed to raise the debt ceiling even when President Donald Trump pursued policies they disliked. In recent days, Schumer has further faulted Republicans for racking up some of the bills that the government still has to pay.

With about three weeks until the deadline, Republicans instead have prodded Democrats to use a particular legislative maneuver to advance it on their own. The process, known as reconciliation, would allow Democrats to address the issue while sidestepping GOP opposition — but it could take weeks and subject the party to uncomfortable political votes in the process.

Schumer in general has called the approach “risky,” as he has pilloried Republicans on the chamber floor for being the “party of default.” On Wednesday, he doubled down on his refusal to use reconciliation, calling it “uncharted waters” that could still lead to a default.

“Time is short. The danger is real,” Schumer said.