Congress votes to avert shutdown, sending short-term funding bill to Biden’s desk

The House approved a short-term spending bill Thursday to keep the government funded through March, sending the stopgap to President Biden’s desk for his signature one day before a partial shutdown deadline.

The chamber cleared the two-step continuing resolution (CR) in a 314-108 vote hours after the Senate approved the measure, punting government funding deadlines to March 1 and March 8 and buying lawmakers more time to finish the formal appropriations process. The legislation is the third short-term spending bill Congress has approved in fiscal 2024.

Passage of the stopgap marks a cleared hurdle for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who cut a deal with other congressional leaders to avert a shutdown and, subsequently, was able to sell the proposal to enough members in his conference to get it over the finish line.

But the Speaker had to rely heavily on Democratic support after conservatives staked their opposition to the proposal, criticizing it for a lack of spending cuts and border security policy. Only two Democrats voted against the measure.

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted in October in part for making a similar decision.

Challenges loom for Johnson. The Speaker has vowed to fight to secure conservative policy riders in the 12 annual appropriations bills, a goal that will be difficult to achieve against Democrats in the Senate and White House.

“I think we’ll be able to get our policy riders and our policy changes,” he told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins in an interview Wednesday night.

The Speaker — who has held the gavel for just 85 days — is also walking on thin ice with conservative Republicans who are frustrated with his handling of government funding matters and the question of sending additional aid to Ukraine. Hard-liners came out against the top-line spending deal Johnson struck with Democratic leaders earlier this month, spelling more trouble for his still-nascent Speakership.

Johnson last week rejected calls from conservatives to renege on the bipartisan top-line spending deal he had backed days before, and he brushed aside a suggestion from the right flank to put a long-term continuing resolution on the floor, which would have triggered a 1 percent across-the-board cut mechanism that was included in the debt limit deal McCarthy struck with Biden last year.

Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have both floated forcing a motion to vacate, the mechanism that was used to oust McCarthy, though there does not appear to be a strong threat to his Speakership.

Thursday’s passage did not come without some last-minute drama.

First, House Republican leadership announced that the chamber would vote on the two-step stopgap bill Thursday afternoon, rather than Friday morning, rushing to the floor as Washington prepares for a Friday snowfall. The Senate approved the legislation early Thursday afternoon, after leaders locked in a time agreement Wednesday night.

Then, Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a member of the conservative group, huddled with Johnson and pitched him on adding an amendment vote on border and migration policy as part of the government funding process. Good said Johnson was “considering it.”

The Speaker, however, rejected the plea — which would have thrown a wrench in the planned process to avert a shutdown — dealing another blow to conservatives who have urged Johnson to embrace their hard-line tactics during the government funding process, to no avail.

“What we’re trying to do is do what’s best for the country, which is to reduce our spending, secure our borders,” Good told The Hill after Johnson’s spokesperson said the plan for funding the government had not changed. “We’re trying to help him and be a partner with him in doing that.”

“Unfortunately, to this point, decisions have been made to form a coalition with Democrats on the material legislation that matters to the country,” he added.

Asked if there would be any consequences for Johnson, Good responded: “We’ll see.”

While a chunk of conservatives opposed the CR on Thursday, the two-step framework is one they championed in the previous CR.

Members of the right-flank viewed the unconventional configuration as a way to avoid a massive end-of-year, whole-of-government omnibus bill.

Under the new measure, lawmakers agreed to extend funding for four of the 12 annual spending bills through March 1, staving off a funding lapse for the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies.

The bill also kicks a Feb. 2 deadline for the remaining government agencies — like the departments of Defense (DOD), Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services — to March 8. 

Spending cardinals in both chambers say the extra time is necessary to craft all 12 funding bills, but some are already worried about the pace of negotiations as they wait for a decision from top negotiators on the allocations for each of the dozen spending measures. 

“I don’t think it’s a good sign,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who heads the subcommittee that oversees DOD funding, told The Hill on Thursday. However, he added that Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas) are working on a deal “to get the numbers.”

If Congress has to pass another stopgap bill in March, it would mark the fourth lawmakers have had to pass in the current session as deep partisan divides remain over spending. There is also concern in Capitol Hill about an impending April deadline for automatic spending cuts if Congress doesn’t finish its work on time. 

“I’m worried about that,” Tester said. “I mean, the truth is, there needs to be some urgency.”

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