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Shutdown looms as US Senate, House push separate spending plans

Congress must pass legislation that US president Joe Biden can sign into law by midnight on Saturday. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: The US Senate and House were due to push ahead with conflicting government funding plans today, raising the chances of the fourth partial shutdown of the federal government in a decade beginning in just three days.

The Senate planned a procedural vote on a stopgap funding bill that has broad bipartisan support in the chamber, while the House of Representatives is set for late-night votes on four partisan appropriations bills that have no chance of becoming law and would not prevent a shutdown even if they did.

Congress must pass legislation that Democratic President Joe Biden can sign into law by midnight on Saturday to avoid furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and a halting of a wide range of services, from economic data releases to nutrition benefits, for the fourth time in the last decade.

House Republicans, led by a small faction of hardline conservatives in the chamber they control by a 221-212 margin, have rejected spending levels for the fiscal year 2024 set in a deal speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated with Biden in May.

The agreement included US$1.59 trillion in discretionary spending in the fiscal year 2024. House Republicans are demanding another US$120 billion in cuts, plus tougher legislation that would stop the flow of immigrants at the US southern border with Mexico.

The funding fight focuses on a relatively small slice of the US$6.4 trillion US budget for this fiscal year. Lawmakers are not considering cuts to popular benefit programmes such as Social Security and Medicare. McCarthy is facing intense pressure from his caucus to achieve their goals.

Several hardliners have threatened to oust McCarthy from his leadership role if he passes a spending bill that requires any Democratic votes to pass.

“I think that the speaker is making a choice between the speakership and American interests,” Biden told a group of donors at a fundraiser in San Francisco yesterday.

Former President Donald Trump has taken to social media to push his congressional allies toward a shutdown.

McCarthy, for his part, suggested today that a shutdown could be avoided if Senate Democrats agreed to address border issues in their stopgap measure.

“I talked this morning to some Democratic senators over there that are more aligned with what we want to do. They want to do something about the border,” McCarthy told reporters in the US Capitol.

“We’re trying to work to see, could we put some border provisions in that current Senate bill that would actually make things a lot better,” he said.

The Senate’s stopgap funding measure would extend federal spending until Nov 17 and authorises roughly US$6 billion each for domestic disaster response funding and aid to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.

‘Not an impossible puzzle’

The measure passed in an initial procedural vote with strong bipartisan support on Tuesday.

“This is not an impossible puzzle to solve,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters yesterday. Referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, he added, “Speaker McCarthy needs to stop letting the MAGA radicals drive his decisions.”

Credit agencies have warned that brinkmanship and political polarisation are harming the US financial outlook. Moody’s, the last major rating agency to rate the US government “AAA” with a stable outlook, said on Monday that a shutdown would harm the country’s credit rating.

Fitch, another major rating agency, already downgraded the US government to “AA+” after Congress flirted with defaulting on the nation’s debt earlier this year.

Most of Congress – including many Senate Republicans – has largely rejected House Republicans’ attempts to make the situation at the border with Mexico the focus of the shutdown.

“We can take the standard approach and fund the government for six weeks at the current rate of operations, or we can shut the government down in exchange for zero meaningful progress on policy,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday.

Representative Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat from Texas who serves as ranking member of the Homeland Security sub-committee, criticised Republicans in a committee hearing yesterday on an appropriations bill that would deal with many aspects of the border.

“There are migration issues we need to address,” he said. “But this bill relies on outdated strategies that we know do not work.”

The House is expected to vote tomorrow on its own short-term funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, or CR. Its success could depend on whether House Republicans can pass the fiscal year 2024 spending bills for homeland security, defence, agriculture, and state department and foreign operations in a voting session expected to end after midnight today.

Three of the bills – defence, foreign operations, and agriculture – are opposed by some Republicans, lawmakers said.

The House CR is expected to include conservative Republican border restrictions that will not pass the Senate, meaning the risk of a shutdown remains high.