Divided Republicans bring the US government to the brink of a shutdown

The White House is preparing to keep only essential public services open and furlough hundreds of thousands of civil servants

President Joe Biden with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown; Arlington, Virginia; September 29, 2023.
President Joe Biden with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown; Arlington, Virginia; September 29, 2023.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

The United States is getting ready for a government shutdown as the deadline to pass the budget for the upcoming fiscal year draws near. The Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives have not reached an agreement, and even some House Republicans have refused to back Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s stopgap funding deal. Barring an unlikely last-minute plot twist, the closure of non-essential government services is imminent, and the White House is poised to implement its contingency plans.

In a government shutdown, only essential public services can remain functioning. Around 1,500,000 federal employees will be either furloughed or required to work without pay until funding is approved. Another two million military personnel and law enforcement officers will be required to work without pay. “If the House fails to fulfill its most basic function, if it fails to fund the government by tomorrow, it will have failed all of our troops,” said President Joe Biden at the Armed Forces farewell tribute in honor of General Mark A. Milley on September 29. “Our service members will keep upholding their oaths, showing up for work, standing sentinel around the world, keeping our country secure – but they won’t get paid. It’s a disgrace… We can’t be playing politics while our troops stand in the breach. It’s an absolute dereliction of duty.”

Federal agencies will suspend all non-essential work, which could impact programs for disadvantaged children, food and workplace safety inspections, authorizations, grants and policies. Federal government-dependent national monuments, museums and national parks will close, but some may remain open if they obtain state funding. The shutdown will also delay publication of employment and inflation statistics, which the Federal Reserve relies on for setting interest rates.

Congress is being held hostage by a handful of hardline Republicans blindly loyal to former President Trump. McCarthy’s earlier agreement with Biden to suspend the debt ceiling included moderate spending cuts to be implemented in the federal government’s next fiscal year (October 1-September 30). However, the hardline faction is refusing to honor the agreement and is demanding significantly larger cuts. Republicans hold a slim 10-vote majority in the House, which gives its 20 dissenters plenty of leverage to block the party’s moderates.

The speaker’s most recent proposal detailed a budget extension through October 31 with massive cuts (30% in most agencies, exempting the Veterans Administration and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security). McCarthy’s bill included strict border security provisions that would initiate more construction of the border wall with Mexico, among other measures. Furthermore, the package sought to create a nonpartisan commission to tackle the nation’s increasing debt burden. However, this wasn’t enough for the radicals, who voted with every Democrat to kill the bill in a 232 to 198 vote. Regardless, it had no chance of being approved by the Senate and signed by the President.

The defeat has not been well received by most Republicans. Congressman Mike Lawler of New York bluntly chastised one of the most vocal representatives opposing McCarthy. “There’s only one person to blame for any potential government shutdown and that’s Matt Gaetz,” Lawler told reporters following the vote. “He is not a conservative Republican. He’s a charlatan.”

A Republican debacle

The Speaker of the House attempted to appease his extremist colleagues by formally opening an impeachment inquiry of President Biden. The first session on September 28 turned into a debacle for the Republicans when some of their own witnesses admitted that there was insufficient evidence or grounds for impeachment.

The Trump-dominated Republican Party wants to prosecute Biden for bribery and abuse of power when he was vice president in relation to his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings. But after analyzing thousands of bank transactions, they can’t trace a penny back to the president. The first impeachment inquiry session showed how loyal Republicans are to Trump. During Representative Greg Casar’s (D-TX) statement, when he questioned whether accountability should be demanded from both Hunter Biden and Trump if proven guilty, only the Democrats raised their hands.

In a recent speech in Arizona, President Biden warned of the danger to American institutions and the Constitution posed by the former president and his movement. “There is something dangerous happening in America. There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy. The MAGA Movement,” he said in reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.

“Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”

Republicans, especially those on the far right, aim to increase pressure on Biden before the 2024 elections through impeachment proceedings and a government shutdown. To keep the federal government going, 12 funding appropriation bills must be passed. The initial proposals have revealed a fractured Republican Party, even regarding continued military and financial support for Ukraine. House Republicans have also wasted time on approving measures with zero chance of Senate and White House approval, such as reducing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s annual salary from $235,000 to $1.

The process of developing and authorizing spending bills is long and tedious, and time has run out. The only option left is a last-minute extension, which seems increasingly unlikely. The Senate’s bipartisan proposal for an extension would probably pass in the House with the support of Democrats and moderate Republicans. But if McCarthy gives it the green light, then the hardliners would immediately demand his resignation. They might insist on it regardless, resulting in a leadership void in the House, as selecting a new Speaker will certainly be vitriolic.

“The failure of House Republicans to act responsibly would hurt American families and cause economic headwinds that could undermine the progress we’re making,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on September 29. “A shutdown would impact many key government functions – from loans to farmers and small businesses, to food and workplace safety inspections, to Head Start programs for children.” Yellen added that a shutdown could delay major infrastructure projects aimed at improving the lives of everyday Americans and modernizing the economy.

“Extreme House Republicans are solely to blame for marching us toward a shutdown,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in her September 29 daily press briefing. “They are tripling their demands to gut programs that millions of working families rely on. The path to funding the government has been laid out by the Senate with bipartisan support – House Republicans just need to take it.”

Government shutdowns began in the 1980s when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti successfully argued that government agencies cannot legally operate without approved funding. Since then, the only permitted spending during a shutdown has been for essential functions, public safety, and constitutional obligations.

Since 1976, there have been 22 funding gaps, with 10 resulting in furloughed workers. The most significant closures happened during Bill Clinton’s presidency when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his conservative majority demanded budget cuts. The longest shutdown happened in 2018-2019 when President Trump and Congressional Democrats couldn’t agree on funding for the border wall with Mexico. The partial shutdown (Congress had approved some limited appropriations) lasted for 35 days during the holiday season.

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