It’s clear Congress doesn’t have time to pass the full-year bills it needs to in order to keep the government open before money runs out on September 30. At question is whether the House can keep the government running by passing a short-term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, that’s acceptable to the House GOP caucus, Senate Democrats, and President Joe Biden in the limited window that’s left. Doing so would buy lawmakers the time they need to come to an agreement on longer-term funding bills, while avoiding a shutdown.
The main hold-up so far is that the Republican conference can’t agree on what should be in the short-term bill, or if there even should be a short-term bill at all. Although the GOP is broadly fiscally conservative, its far-right members are pushing for more aggressive spending cuts, the attachment of border security policies, and the omission of Ukraine aid in any spending package, short or long term.
Where negotiations to avoid a government shutdown currently stand
House Republicans still have no agreement on a short-term spending bill, and several Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), have argued against doing any short-term funding bill at all.
Those lawmakers argue funding needs to be cut drastically and say short-term bills aren’t conducive to long-term cuts. They also claim the only way Congress should address spending is by negotiating funding bills, and that the House should have better utilized its time this year to make those negotiations happen. This approach would virtually guarantee a shutdown — and McCarthy has pushed back on it.
“I still believe if you shut down, we are in a weaker position,” McCarthy said last week. “You need the time to fund the government while you pass all the appropriations bills.”
The challenge McCarthy faces is ensuring he has the votes to keep the government open without having to rely on Democrats. Any bipartisan deal could endanger his tenure as speaker since any member of the GOP caucus has the power to trigger a vote to oust their leader, and several have been discussing doing so. A majority of the House would have to vote to remove the speaker for it to actually happen, however.
McCarthy tried to assuage some members of his right flank by holding votes on four full-year spending bills on Thursday evening. Three of those bills — funding for the State, Homeland Security, and Defense departments — were able to pass. A fourth, funding for the Agriculture Department, failed because of opposition from moderates and rural members who did not support its limitations on abortion pills and spending cuts. The three bills that passed aren’t expected to go anywhere in the Senate, and would not be sufficient to keep the government open even if they did.
Senate lawmakers, meanwhile, are scrambling to move a bipartisan short-term spending package that would keep the government open through November 17 and include roughly $6 billion each for Ukraine and disaster aid, respectively. The upper chamber could take a final vote on it as soon as Saturday, later than Democrats hoped due to delays caused by opposition from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who is against supplying more Ukraine aid.
The House voted on its own short-term measure on Friday, but it failed, with 21 GOP lawmakers opposing it. Since House Republicans are poised to oppose the Senate CR as well, it’s not clear if there’s a path to any resolution in the lower chamber.
Factions in the House GOP are driving the march to a shutdown
The House GOP is a very fractured caucus, and its various factions often have goals that run counter to those from other groups. That dynamic has led to the mess the House is currently in. Below are the main House factions jostling for their policy priorities in spite of the looming shutdown deadline:
Those who’ve been most outspoken about the need for more curbs to spending are archconservatives like Rep. Gaetz, who has vocally opposed a CR. Gaetz has balked at approving any CR at all because he argues that it won’t result in significant changes to longer-term funding as the US’s debt continues to grow.
In a caucus meeting, he emphasized that there were seven Republican members who would be open to voting against a CR, a number that has grown to at least 10 ahead of the shutdown date. With those numbers, Gaetz and the other GOP lawmakers could sink any short-term bill McCarthy proposes.
Lawmakers who have previously expressed such positions include Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) and Rep. Eli Crane (R-AZ). “They’re immovable,” Gaetz has said, according to the New York Times. These members seem willing to risk a shutdown in order to make their larger point about spending, and have the backing of former President Donald Trump, who has instructed his party: “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!”
Gaetz has also been one of the most vocal lawmakers threatening House Speaker McCarthy’s leadership, claiming that McCarthy’s wasted months of time, “fiddling like Nero as Rome burns” instead of launching discussions on spending early this year. Discussions about trying to replace McCarthy appear to be coming to a head, with reports suggesting his opponents could try to force him out shortly after a shutdown begins.
House Freedom Caucus
An outspoken conservative group that’s been more open to negotiations this time around compared to past years, the Freedom Caucus has previously been vocal about opposing any short-term funding bill that doesn’t address its demands.
Those demands were made clear in a statement it posted in August, one that included a push for CR language that addressed the supposed “weaponization of the government” against conservatives, border security proposals, and measures to tackle what it called “woke policies” in the military.
Although the group’s membership is somewhat private, it’s believed to contain roughly three dozen members and therefore has the numbers needed to obstruct the passage of any compromise. Prominent members include Reps. Scott Perry (R-PA), Byron Donalds (R-FL), Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Chip Roy (R-TX).
Unlike some conservatives, however, Freedom Caucus leadership has been involved in the negotiations of possible short-term funding deals, even though its membership hasn’t always been in agreement. The leaders involved, including Donalds and Roy, had emphasized the wins that the caucus secured in McCarthy’s endangered deal, including major spending cuts and border security policies.
In the past, the Freedom Caucus has been known as the faction of the Republican Party that’s been willing to blow legislation up in order to make its larger point. This week, 27 members signaled that they would not be comfortable moving forward with a short-term funding deal until they got more information from McCarthy regarding a path forward for appropriations bills. Several made good on that threat Friday, voting against a short-term measure to keep the government open.
27 Members of the House Freedom Caucus urgently request basic information and a clear plan from Speaker McCarthy on the path forward to pass appropriations.— House Freedom Caucus (@freedomcaucus) September 28, 2023
Members need answers to these reasonable questions before even considering a stop-gap funding measure. pic.twitter.com/L8tEgKA8g7
Main Street Caucus
A self-described pragmatic group of about 70 lawmakers that includes the likes of Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) and Stephanie Bice (R-OK), the Main Street Caucus says it’s committed to conservative principles, business-friendly policies, and productivity. Its members dislike being described as moderate and emphasize that they back conservative ideals but support a functional Congress. Although they also like spending cuts, the Main Street Caucus is less keen on a potential shutdown.
“Our caucus hates cliffs, we hate dumpster fires, we hate chaos. We aim to be the grown-ups in the room,” Johnson previously told Roll Call.
The Main Street Caucus was involved in negotiations on a prior GOP spending deal, which Freedom Caucus leadership supported but rank-and-file members rejected. The version of the CR they advanced is now dead, though Main Street lawmakers have backed the new options suggested by McCarthy.
The anti-Ukraine funding gang
Ukraine funding is also proving to be a point of contention among a segment of House Republicans across various caucuses, including with conservatives like Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Many of these Republicans have long balked at providing what they describe as a “blank check” in Ukraine aid, and have been eager to reduce or cut off these contributions.
The White House requested $24 billion in Ukraine and other international aid be included in any short-term spending package, an amount many GOP members have chafed against providing. House and Senate Republicans, in a recent letter, called for more information about how Ukraine funds are being spent and accountability regarding what they are being used to provide.
“Are the Ukrainians any closer to victory than they were 6 months ago? What is our strategy, and what is the president’s exit plan? What does the administration define as victory in Ukraine?” the letter reads.
Some members of the House have promised to vote against any package that includes Ukraine aid, including long-term spending bills. To get around this problem, McCarthy removed Ukraine funding from the long-term defense spending bill that passed Thursday, putting the question of Ukraine funding up for a separate vote. Both passed, and the Ukraine bill did so with overwhelming bipartisan support. Republican leaders may have to separate Ukraine aid from any last-ditch attempts to fund the government (or any attempts to reopen it) in order for those efforts to be successful.
Increasingly, it’s looking as though one likely way out of a shutdown could be some form of compromise legislation between moderate Republicans and Democrats. McCarthy previously worked with Democrats on a budget deal that was supposed to govern the fall’s spending bill negotiations. That partnership wasn’t received well among the farther-right parts of the caucus, and should he try to work with Democrats again, McCarthy would risk one of his members starting the process to remove him from leadership.
All that hasn’t stopped a couple of different groups from floating the idea of a bipartisan solution. That includes discussions by the center-right Republican Governance Group, which has roughly 40 members; the center-left New Democrat Coalition, which has more than 90 members; and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which has over 60 members.
Last week, the Problem Solvers Caucus put forth a framework with its compromise ideas that included funding the government at the current levels through January 11, a border security proposal, disaster relief money, and Ukraine aid. While it is the sort of proposal that could feasibly be accepted by the Senate and White House, its disaster aid and Ukraine money will likely make it unacceptable to the more conservative members of the House GOP.
It’s now clear that proposal is going nowhere, at least for now. However, McCarthy could try to cobble together a majority to back the Senate’s CR that includes these moderates and some Democrats.
Some moderates have also started discussing the potential use of a discharge petition — a measure that allows lawmakers to force a floor vote on a policy, even if the speaker refuses to bring it up — in order to hold a vote on a potential CR.
Filing a discharge petition is time-consuming, however, and technically requires the measure in question to be considered in committee for 30 days, meaning it might not be able to prevent a shutdown, though it could potentially reopen the government.
A discharge petition would also need 217 votes to move forward given the current House breakdown. That would require five Republicans to join with 212 Democrats to move it, which would be significant. A handful of moderate Republicans, including Reps. Marc Molinaro (R-NY) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) have signaled openness to this option, but it would still be a drastic move for them to go against their own party.
Update, September 29, 4:15 pm ET: This story was originally published on September 21 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to reflect that a short-term measure to keep the government open failed to pass the House.