Another Government Shutdown?

Congress has a week to pass a spending bill to keep the lights on . . .

By Michael Collins, Nov. 28, 2018 | Original USA TODAY article here.

WASHINGTON – The federal government is moving closer to its third government shutdown since President Donald Trump took office. And Trump says he’d “totally be willing” to let it happen.

The government will run out of money at midnight Dec. 7 unless Congress passes a spending bill to keep the lights on. If lawmakers fail to act, some government agencies will no longer have the necessary funding to keep operating and will be forced to close their doors.

Congress already has approved five bills providing funding for the areas of defense, energy and water, labor, health and human services, the legislative branch and veterans affairs. Trump has signed those into law.

But seven other spending bills are still awaiting congressional action. The bills that need approval would fund the departments of . . .

  • Agriculture
  • Commerce
  • Justice
  • Homeland Security
  • Interior
  • State
  • Transportation
  • Housing and Urban Development

. . . as well as several smaller agencies.

Why is the deadline next week?

The federal fiscal year began on Oct. 1, but since Congress had not funded every department and agency, lawmakers passed a short-term funding bill in late September to give them time to finish their work.

That short-term bill expires at midnight Dec. 7, which leaves Congress with basically three options:

  1. Pass all of the remaining spending bills by next week, which is a tall order.

  2. Pass another short-term spending bill to buy themselves more time.

  3. Slow the funding to lapse, which would trigger a partial government shutdown.

What’s the likelihood of a shutdown?

It’s hard to say.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats insist they don’t want to shutter the government, yet they have been unable to reach an agreement on some key issues that would allow them to pass the outstanding spending bills. Trump ratcheted up the shutdown talk this week when he told Politico he’d “totally be willing” to shut down the federal government if Congress does not approve $5 billion for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

House Republicans have backed Trump's call for $5 billion; the House Appropriations Committee approved the spending in July. But a bipartisan Senate bill earmarked only $1.6 billion for the wall.

Democrats have signaled they’re not budging.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., noted that the $1.6 billion in border security funding included in the Senate bill was negotiated by Democrats and Republicans.

“We believe that is the right way to go,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Are there other sticking points?

Of course.

Schumer has indicated that Democrats might block passage of the spending bill unless Congress approves legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation from White House interference.

Mueller is looking into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and has come under withering attack from Trump, who has labeled the probe “The Mueller Witch Hunt” and “a total disgrace.” Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday and accused the special counsel’s office of trying to coerce witnesses to testify against him.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders has said Trump has no plans to get rid of Mueller. But some members of Congress, including retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., fear Trump is trying to undermine him and are pushing legislation to protect the special counsel’s job.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has vowed to stop legislation protecting Mueller, saying that if senators attempted to bring up the bill for expedited consideration, he would reject it – a move he has already done once this month. On Wednesday, McConnell's allies again blocked a vote on the bill. If Democrats hold their ground, the issue could become a major stumbling block in the budget talks.

Another issue that Democrats are threatening to tie to the budget negotiations involves a new citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March that people completing the survey would be asked to indicate whether or not they’re a U.S. citizen. The government hasn’t asked about individuals' citizenship on the Census since 1950.

Opponents, including California, New York, the American Civil Liberties Union and immigration rights groups, contend fears of deportation among undocumented immigrants will cause them to be undercounted and would lead to an inaccurate Census count.

More than two dozen states and cities have filed suit to block the question. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in February on what kind of arguments can be considered in the plaintiffs’ challenge.

Democrats, meanwhile, could use the budget process to remove the citizenship question from the survey.

Could the budget battle be delayed?

In theory, yes.

Congress could pass another short-term spending bill to keep the government running through early next year. That would allow House Republicans to avoid difficult decisions and dump them in the laps of House Democrats, who will take back the majority in January.

But outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday the GOP doesn’t want more delays.

“We still want to solve problems,” he said. “We’re elected to work for our constituents.”

Isn’t this déjà vu?

You bet.

The government already has shut down twice in the less than two years since Trump took office.

  • The government partially shut down for three days last January after an impasse in the Senate over federal funding. The standoff ended when lawmakers passed a short-term spending bill

  • Less than three weeks later, the government shut down for a second time after Congress failed to pass a spending bill to keep the agencies running. That shutdown, however, was the shortest one on record. It lasted less than six hours and ended when lawmakers passed a six-week spending bill.