Biden to meet with congressional leaders at the White House to avoid government shutdown

The US president is also attempting to unblock aid to Ukraine and Israel approved by the Senate

Biden avoid government shutdown
The president of the United States, Joe Biden, this Monday in an ice cream parlor in central New York.LEAH MILLIS (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

The countdown is on again. For the fourth time in just a few months, the U.S. government faces the risk of a partial shutdown of the administration. After three successive extensions, there is still no agreement to pass the pending budget bills. The deadline is March 1 for some of the federal departments, and March 8 for the remainder. In view of this situation, President Joe Biden has summoned congressional leaders to the White House on Tuesday. Biden not only needs to secure funding to maintain public services, but is also seeking the approval of a law to provide further aid for Ukraine.

Attending the meeting — for which the president has set aside just over an hour in his official schedule — are the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Mike Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, the House Democratic Minority Leader, Hakeem Jeffries, the Senate Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell, and Vice-President Kamala Harris.

The White House has not released the agenda for the meeting but its press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, pointed in her Monday press briefing to the two most pressing matters. “What the president wants to see is we want to make sure the national security interests of the American people gets put first,” she said, in apparent reference to the $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security priorities. The bill passed the Senate but has an uncertain future in the House.

“And we also want to see that the government does not get shut down. It is a basic priority or duty of Congress to keep the government open. So, that’s what the President wants to see. He’ll have those conversations. Obviously, [I’m] not going to get ahead of the agenda for the president and what he’s going to discuss. But these things are incredibly important,” Jean-Pierre continued.

Aid to Ukraine appears to have a majority to pass the House of Representatives, following a 79-29 vote in the Senate. But, in order to be approved, the House Speaker must clear the way and bring it to a vote.

Approving the budget laws in the few remaining days appears to be a more complicated issue. In principle, funding for part of the administration, including the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs, ends on March 1. Funding for the rest of the federal administration ends on March 8, including the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State, although pension payments and essential public services remain in place.

The latest round of budget negotiations came to an unsuccessful end this past weekend. Schumer wrote a letter to members of his caucus outlining the situation: “While we had hoped to have legislation ready this weekend that would give ample time for members to review the text, it is clear now that House Republicans need more time to sort themselves out,” he said.

“Unfortunately, extreme House Republicans have shown they’re more capable of causing chaos than passing legislation. It is my sincere hope that in the face of a disruptive shutdown that would hurt our economy and make American families less safe, Speaker Johnson will step up to once again buck the extremists in his caucus and do the right thing,” Schumer added, in a message that House Speaker Johnson described as “counterproductive.”

“Leader Schumer’s letter fails to mention that many of the points still being debated come from new Democrat demands that were not previously included in the Senate bills,” Johnson responded. “This is not a time for petty politics. House Republicans will continue to work in good faith and hope to reach an outcome as soon as possible, even as we continue to insist that our own border security must be addressed immediately,” he added.

The hardline wing of the Republican Party has been demanding deep spending cuts, something that has caused division within the majority caucus and makes Johnson’s task difficult. That division and the refusal of hardliners to compromise with Democrats ultimately cost Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, his job.

The United States does not have one single budget law but a dozen, and is systematically unable to pass them in time for the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1. The usual practice is to pass a budget extension, called a continuing resolution, while the laws enabling the fiscal year’s expenditures are being processed, which usually follow a cumbersome and complex procedure full of amendments.

McCarthy was ousted in a no-confidence motion after passing a first budget extension to avoid a partial shutdown of the administration. Johnson has already approved two further extensions in the face of diminishing support in the House of Representatives. On the third occasion, 107 Republicans voted in favor and 106 against, while Democrats voted 207-2 in favor.

The timeframe for extensions is also running out. In the deal Biden struck with McCarthy to raise the debt ceiling, it was agreed that if there were no approved budgets by April 30, an indiscriminate 1% spending cut would be applied to all items over the previous year. That is something neither Republicans nor Democrats — particularly Senators — desire. Some of the Republican hardliners in the House, however, prefer that scenario to a spending increase.

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