Deal to dodge government shutdown on Saturday appears to stall amid Republican policy demands

Leaders in Congress slipped Sunday in their last-minute scramble to head off a looming government shutdown deadline that could shutter vital services at the Transportation Department, strain food stamp programs and put housing assistance for millions of families in jeopardy.

With some federal funding set to expire in less than a week, House Republican policy demands - on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights and abortion to national security concerns on immigration and competition from China - have slowed talks that had appeared to be close to yielding a breakthrough. Lawmakers abandoned tentative plans to announce legislative text on a deal Sunday evening.

Instead, legislators privately say another temporary spending extension could be necessary to avert a partial shutdown that could ripple into the winder economy. Roughly 20 percent of the federal government will close on March 2 without action. A deadline for the remaining 80 percent awaits just a week later.

Already, Congress has passed stopgap spending legislation three times since Sept. 30 as government funding debates revealed internecine brawls in the House GOP and tested the party’s brittle and minuscule majority.

President Biden summoned House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to the White House for a meeting Tuesday to discuss the shutdown deadlines and the White House’s push to pass new defense assistance for Ukraine.

Even a partial shutdown would trouble federal food assistance programs - including WIC, an emergency nutrition program for women, infants and children that is already contending with a budget shortfall. Air traffic controllers would remain on the job, but would go unpaid. Federal housing vouchers, which support 5 million families, could be temporarily endangered. Government scientists would stop tracing and studying animal-borne diseases.

“The stakes really couldn’t be higher. A breastfeeding mother knows all too well the feeling of how hungry you get. The sound of a newborn baby crying because they don’t have enough formula, that is a sound that all parents know,” said Allison Johnson, campaign director of advocacy group ParentsTogether Action. “It’s pretty harrowing to think that could be happening across the board.”


The second government shutdown deadline on March 9 would hit the Defense and State departments, border security operations, the Justice Department and FBI, workplace safety regulators and national health officials.

That means the odds of a climatic showdown at the Capitol are growing: President Biden is set to deliver his State of the Union address March 7, with lawmakers potentially still stuck on a plan to fund the government.

The current federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, but so far, Congress has had to fund government operations through short-term measures that just keep programs going on last year’s budget, rather than with fresh legislation that sets new spending levels.

Mike Johnson and Schumer agreed in January to spend $1.7 trillion on so-called discretionary programs for the year, and then later agreed on how much money each broad sector of the government should spend, but they haven’t yet been able to reach a deal on specific spending legislation.

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Senate had hoped to release text for legislation on Sunday night that would cover the agencies whose funding will expire first, according to a person familiar with negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fragile talks.

But that plan failed to materialize. The House GOP, its narrow majority already restive over spending, may be even less enthused about the potential deal now: Johnson, in a call with his Republican conference on Friday night, said the legislation his chamber had negotiated with Schumer contained plenty of conservative “singles and doubles” for policy provisions, but no “home runs or grand slams.”

In a letter to senators Sunday, Schumer said House Republicans “need more time to sort themselves out” before they could agree to spending bills.

“Unfortunately, extreme House Republicans have shown they’re more capable of causing chaos than passing legislation,” Schumer wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Washington Post. “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.”

Johnson said in a statement that Schumer’s letter contained “counterproductive rhetoric,” and that Senate Democrats had made surprise policy demands in negotiations.

“Our position is that of the American people,” Johnson said, “and our mission is to take steps to rein in Democrats’ overspending and policies that are harming the economy, raising prices, and making everyday life harder for our constituents.”

“This is not a time for petty politics,” the speaker later added. “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.”

The archconservative House Freedom Caucus has been pushing the speaker to demand either more spending cuts or specific policy provisions already passed by the House that roll back key components of Biden’s legislative victories or executive orders.

The Freedom Caucus also has urged Johnson to be willing to force a government shutdown if he doesn’t win spending cuts or policy riders.

More governing-minded Republican lawmakers have rejected that approach, privately worrying that their party will be bear the political consequences of a shutdown in this fall’s elections as the GOP strives to hold on to its narrow House majority and flip the Senate and White House.

Democrats have been all too happy to make the same case.

“If this government shuts down and people don’t get their Social Security checks, their retirement checks and people are laid off from work, they’re all going to have this laid at the doorstep of the Republican Party. And we are not going to back up from that one bit,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Saturday on MSNBC.

(Social Security checks would continue to go out if the government shuts down, though, because the program is not funded through annual appropriations laws.)


On Tuesday, the Freedom Caucus wrote to Johnson with a list of 21 rider demands, including policies to eliminate Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary, block key components of Biden’s climate agenda and cut off funding for the World Health Organization and several U.N. relief agencies.

“The realities of poison pills are that once they go in, in a single appropriations cycle, they don’t come out in the next one,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president at the left-leaning consumer rights group Public Citizen, which has been pressuring lawmakers to reject any added policy language. “And so not only are you signing away this, this moment in time on the topic, but you’re also almost certainly putting a marker down on it for a really long time.”

Freedom Caucus members say that without the riders, they would prefer Congress pass a year-long continuing resolution, which would trigger automatic across-the-board spending cuts that would take effect in May.

Under those cuts, called sequestration, every domestic federal program - except for Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ programs and debt payments - would face a 7 to 10 percent budget cut. The speaker should use that threat, Freedom Caucus members argue, to extract steeper spending cuts from Democrats in the appropriations bills.

“It sounds like we’re not going to fight for significant policy wins,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the Freedom Caucus chair, told The Post on Friday. “Once again, the Democrats know that if you will not risk a government shutdown, they’re just going to say no to everything that you want to do and then we’re going to lose again because we’re not willing to go to the mat to actually fight for anything.”