The federal government temporarily avoided a shutdown with mere hours to spare on Sunday, September 30th. This outcome came as a surprise to many following politics as the government seemed destined to close on the start of Sunday. Despite the surprise aversion, government funding remains on very shaky ground.
The shutdown debate comes after a standoff over the “debt ceiling,”. Essentially, every few years Congress has to “raise” the debt limit to allow the U.S. government to pay its bills (bonds, loans from foreign governments, etc). If Congress would fail to do this, it would trigger an economic recession worse than the Great Depression. In the spring of this year, House Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless President Biden agreed to cut federal programs. At the time, President Biden and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the former Republican Speaker of the House, agreed on two things: (1) the Republicans would raise the Debt Ceiling and (2) the Democrats would cut federal programs (albeit significantly less that the Republicans proposed) when the appropriations bills were up for a vote in the fall. This agreement avoided economic catastrophe but set the stage for the current fight over government funding.
Now, Republicans are demanding greater cuts than what they agreed upon in the spring. One proposed cut by Republicans included a roughly 9.5% cut in spending overall, including a 33% cut in spending on housing for the poor and an 80% cut in housing for public schools. This bill did not pass the House as Republican hardliners argued the cuts were not drastic enough. While the majority of the Republican Conference does not want such severe cuts to these fundamental programs, the conference is largely governed by its most extreme members. Regardless of what the Republicans in Congress want, they have to compromise with Democrats who control the Senate and White House and are unlikely to support any significant cuts to social programs.
Driving much of the trouble was the fate of Kevin McCarthy’s job as Speaker of the House. McCarthy’s job depended on all but four members who could remove him with a single vote. Thus, McCarthy appeased his extreme members who demanded even more severe cuts on government spending. If he didn’t, they would kick him out of the speakership. On the afternoon of the 30th, McCarthy went against the extremists’ wishes and brought a temporary spending bill to a vote. The bill included every provision from the original agreement from the spring, except aid for Ukraine. The bill passed with more Democratic votes than Republicans and was sent to the Senate, where it passed and was signed by President Biden. Thus, we have successfully avoided a shutdown for 45 days.
In the aftermath of this success, chaos descended on the Republican Conference. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), gathered a group of Republicans to successfully remove McCarthy from the speakership. The move threw the House in chaos, leaving Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) to fight for the speakership. While Scalise was the initial favorite to win the speakership, he had to withdraw his candidacy after a day when he couldn’t get enough support from the Conference. Now, Jim Jordan is the frontrunner for the nomination. But he, too, has already lost the initial vote and will likely face the same challenges as Scalise — primarily a Conference that may be too divided to unite behind anyone. As of today, the Republican Conference has not demonstrated a desire to work with Democrats on a compromise speaker, cutting off a potential avenue to resolve this crisis.
All of this unfolds as Congress is under pressure to manage the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel’s war against Hamas, and a November 17th deadline to fund the government. Perhaps the people who will suffer the most are those in Ukraine, who desperately need U.S. funding but lack the backing of powerful Republican extremists in the House. Despite this massive challenge, the House adjourned for the weekend to gather themselves, bringing the House into its second week without a speaker and one month away from a government shutdown.
When the House finds a speaker, they will have limited time to deal with the major issues at hand. It’s possible that the government will shut down on November 17th if Congress can’t find a funding deal, leaving federal employees furloughed indefinitely. Until then, the race to find a speaker remains the biggest priority for House Republicans. Perhaps impossible, a solution will have to arrive quickly if Congress plans to manage the crises unfolding in its absence.
Senior Olivia Deelen is a Staff Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.