US again faces possibility of government shutdown over spending

When House Speaker Mike Johnson met with reporters ahead of a vote on a continuing resolution, which ultimately kept the government funded at its current levels, at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. [AP Photo]

Leaders of the House and Senate announced a broad agreement on spending levels for 2024 this week, but much work remains to be done if lawmakers plan to avoid shutting down large portions of the federal government between now and early February.

A major focus of that work will entail finding a way to satisfy a small hard-right element of the Republican-led House, which has demanded significant cuts in federal spending that are not reflected in the $1.66 trillion budget agreement struck by House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over the weekend.

It will not be enough simply to agree to an overall budget number for the federal government. Lawmakers must also pass legislation authorizing individual federal departments and agencies to spend the money, creating more opportunities for disagreement and delay.

Tight deadline

The shutdown deadlines are staggered, with part of the federal government, including the departments of Transportation, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, set to run out of funds on January 19. The remainder of the government will hit its funding limit February 2.

Even in the event of a government shutdown, services related to national defense, internal security and other “essential” operations would continue. However, the government employees required to remain on the job would not be paid until a spending deal was finalized.

Some experts questioned whether Congress has left itself enough time to complete the process without resorting to what's known as a continuing resolution, which would allow spending to continue at current levels until spending bills were finalized.

“It's one thing to have an overall number,” William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program, told VOA. “It's another thing to divide that overall number among the 12 budget subcommittees. And it's yet another thing to make all of the more specific line-by-line decisions in each of the 12 spending categories.”

He added: “I don't know a lot of budget experts who think that that is going to be achieved between now and January 19.”

Deal announced

Johnson and Schumer announced their “top-line” agreement Sunday, including $886 billion in military spending and $773 billion in non-military spending. It gave both sides the ability to claim the deal as a win.

Johnson highlighted the fact that he had negotiated an additional $16 billion in spending cuts in the deal and told the members of his party that the agreement represents “the most favorable budget agreement Republicans have achieved in over a decade.”

Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, in a joint statement, celebrated the fact that they had secured a deal that avoided large cuts in domestic non-military spending that some in the Republican Party had been calling for. They said that the deal would “protect key domestic priorities like veterans' benefits, health care and nutrition assistance from the draconian cuts sought by right-wing extremists.”

Long-running dispute

The roots of the funding crisis go back to last year, when former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated an agreement with the administration of President Joe Biden to raise the country’s debt limit and avoid a potentially catastrophic federal default. The deal increased spending on the military and kept non-military spending roughly flat. It was meant to extend through 2024, avoiding another debt limit showdown during a presidential election year.

McCarthy met significant resistance from members of the Republican conference who had been demanding major spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit. He was able to get the agreement to pass in the House only because Democrats joined some Republicans in supporting it.

McCarthy’s willingness to make a deal with Democrats led members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus to demand a vote that led to his ouster as speaker in October. After weeks of confusion, during which several senior figures in the party were denied the post, Johnson was elected speaker in late October.

Freedom Caucus unhappy

The deal announced over the weekend is very similar to the agreement that led to McCarthy’s being voted out of the speakership last year, and it immediately triggered complaints from the GOP right wing about the plan's failure to slash federal spending and its lack of specifics about other conservative policy priorities.

The Freedom Caucus blasted the arrangement, saying, “This is total failure.”

In a radio interview with conservative political commentator Glenn Beck, Representative Chip Roy said, “Republicans are going to try to sell you and the American people that somehow this is a win. Don’t believe that. This is what the American people are tired of.”

There was also evidence that dissatisfaction with the deal has extended beyond the Freedom Caucus. On the social media platform X, former Freedom Caucus member Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote, “I am a NO to the Johnson Schumer budget deal. This $1.6 Trillion budget agreement does nothing to secure the border, stop the invasion, or stop the weaponized government targeting Biden’s political enemies and innocent Americans.”

Challenging margins

Johnson was already in a difficult position when it comes to controlling his party.

The House has 433 active members, with 220 in the Republican majority, meaning Johnson can lose only three members on any given measure to win party-line votes. With Representative Steve Scalise expected to be absent for several weeks due to cancer treatments and Representative Bill Johnson expected to resign by the end of the month, that margin will shrink to just two votes.

Andrew Lautz, a senior analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, told VOA that a key factor in the passage of the spending deal would be how deep the dissatisfaction with it runs in the Republican Party.

Lautz said it now seems almost certain that Johnson will need to rely on Democratic votes to pass a spending bill based on his deal with Schumer, a situation that could become politically toxic if he loses a large percentage of his own party.

“The key to success for Speaker Johnson and House Republicans here is whether the opposition within the Freedom Caucus … extends to more members of the rank and file,” he said.

“Beyond just the Freedom Caucus, there are plenty of conservative members of the House who want to cut spending,” Lautz said. “If they are upset with this agreement, then Speaker Johnson and House Republicans will have a much more difficult time passing this."