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Why there are no heroes in this shutdown showdown

Everyone blames everyone else for unpassed spending bills

Dark clouds hang over the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington on May 3.
Dark clouds hang over the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington on May 3. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law …” — Article I, Section 9

The Constitution’s language is clear about the legislative branch controlling the federal purse strings. But, as the old adage puts it: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Neither chamber of the legislative branch has done much drinking from the River Appropriations this year, with both the House and Senate struggling to even garner the votes to check procedural boxes to start debate on spending bills.

Like other members this week, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, just squinted inside a Capitol elevator when asked if he could imagine a path around a shutdown. Spoiler alert: He did not offer a potential way out.

History suggests one should emerge by the middle of next week, when there will be only a handful of days left before the government would run out of operating funds. But this shutdown drama is very different from previous ones, with a band of rebellious House conservatives vowing to block the kinds of funding bills that might have a shot at becoming law — and threatening to try to strip Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., of the gavel he has long desired.

This week, a new problem for the speaker emerged, one that could prove even harder to solve than the ones he already was facing.

McCarthy and other House Republicans eventually will need to try persuading a conservative group now at war with itself to allow the chamber to pass temporary and then full-year fiscal 2024 funding bills that are more than just conservative wish lists. After all, purely partisan House GOP spending bills will lack the necessary 60 votes in the Senate and will not get President Joe Biden’s signature.

But if the small group of conservative rebels continue threatening to take away McCarthy’s gavel if he negotiates such spending bills with Democratic lawmakers or White House officials’ input, they will continue to have outsize power for the rest of the year — and beyond.

For their part, House Democrats have not exactly spent the days since returning from a long summer break trying to play shutdown heroes. Some reached out to GOP moderates, but others have mostly spent the September session lobbing rhetorical barbs at Republican leaders.

“Every single day Kevin McCarthy decides, ‘What I’m going to do today is make sure that I stay the speaker,’ even if the cost is a shutdown, which is going to hurt hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans who have to cancel their vacations to national parks, or their Social Security is put at risk,” House Intelligence ranking member Jim Himes, D-Conn., told MSNBC on Wednesday.

To be sure, the spending hole has been dug by both parties. While Himes blamed the funding impasses on “an absence of leadership” from top Republicans, the Democrat-controlled Senate has not exactly led the way on fiscal 2024 spending bills.

Yet, that did not stop top Senate appropriators from taking a victory lap this week.

“As you all know, I’ve been working with Sen. [Susan] Collins from the start of the year to make sure we have an open, bipartisan appropriations process,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., told reporters this week.

That “process,” however, has featured little floor time for spending bills with only a handful of in-session days planned before the government would shutter. Senate Democrats have said they needed to focus this spring and summer on moving as many of Biden’s judicial nominations as possible, leaving little floor time for anything else. Others pinned the blame on Senate Republicans.

“My sense is Republicans are gumming things up in the Senate right now to give space to McCarthy,” Senate Appropriations Committee member Christoper S. Murphy, D-Conn., said in a Thursday interview. “It obviously doesn’t make McCarthy look good if we’re moving appropriations bills seamlessly through the Senate, so I think Republicans are stopping things from moving forward here to make McCarthy look less bad.”

But Cornyn accused Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., of not taking floor action sooner on that chamber’s fiscal 2024 spending bills because of a calculation that doing so would be “politically advantageous” for Democrats.

“It maximizes Schumer’s power because he wants to be able to negotiate an omnibus at the end of the year,” Cornyn said. “And it also gives him a shot at the House by blaming them for the current situation.”

While Murphy and Cornyn were addressing full-year spending bills, wide support exists in the Senate for a relatively “clean” stopgap that would steer the country around a government shutdown next week. To that end, the current shutdown threat could be quickly resolved if McCarthy could figure out a way to solve his newest riddle.

But riddle your correspondent this: How do you negotiate with such a splintered opposition?

Cornyn, a former GOP whip who has contacts on both sides of the Capitol complex, said he has confidence in McCarthy’s ability, likely sometime next week, to pull off some improvisation.

“I wouldn’t underestimate Kevin McCarthy,” Cornyn said. “I think he’s, you know, he has shown he is capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.”

But it would be wise to not purchase any bunnies with federal funds. The conservative rebels likely would object to even that relatively small expenditure. It might even cost the speaker his dream job.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter. He is a former editor of CQ’s Budget Tracker newsletter.

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Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024