Lawmakers scramble for Plan B on stopgap funds, debt ceiling

Legislation needed to avert partial government shutdown Oct. 1; debt limit deadline could be as soon as Oct. 15

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., arrives at the Capitol on Monday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., arrives at the Capitol on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 27, 2021 at 5:28pm

Congress moved closer to a partial government shutdown Monday after Senate Republicans blocked a temporary spending bill over their opposition to a debt limit suspension Democrats attached.

The cloture vote on the motion to proceed to the underlying bill was 48-50, falling short of the 60 votes needed to bring the measure up for debate. Without a presidential signature by Friday, federal agencies will have to start shutting down all but their most critical functions to protect life and property, with hundreds of thousands of employees furloughed or working without pay.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer vowed to bring a spending bill back to the floor later this week, saying that GOP opposition to the package Monday was “one of the most reckless, one of the most irresponsible votes” he’d seen in the Senate.

“Keeping the government open and preventing a default is vital to our country’s future. And we’ll be taking further action to prevent this from happening this week,” Schumer said. He switched his vote to "no" on the motion, a procedural tactic that allows Democrats to try to proceed to the bill again.

The stalemate leaves the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department and several independent forecasts say needs to be lifted within weeks, in limbo for the time being. The continuing resolution would suspend the debt limit through the midterm elections until Dec. 16, 2022, which the Bipartisan Policy Center says would result in a $2.4 trillion debt increase under current law.

GOP senators argued that Democrats' decision to add a debt limit suspension to the package was unacceptable, even if that means a funding lapse begins Friday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday reiterated his party's stance that Democrats should carry the debt limit vote on their own, while offering support for a CR with the debt ceiling provision stripped and money for the Israeli Iron Dome rocket defense system added.

"We will support a clean continuing resolution that will prevent a government shutdown, get disaster relief to Louisiana, help properly vetted Afghan refugees who put themselves on the line for America and support the Iron Dome assistance for our ally Israel," McConnell said on the floor. "We will not provide Republican votes for raising the debt limit."

The House-passed stopgap funding bill would extend current federal agency funding levels, with some exceptions known as "anomalies," through Dec. 3. It would provide $28.6 billion to address natural disasters including Hurricane Ida, which lashed the Gulf Coast states earlier this month. It would also appropriate $6.3 billion to help relocate Afghan refugees who helped the U.S government during the war.

Before House passage, Democratic leaders removed $1 billion for the Iron Dome system, an Israeli government request after 12 days of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip in May. The House later voted 420-9 for standalone legislation to appropriate those funds, which Republicans and some Democrats want to add back to the CR.

Although adding the money back in could cost support from some progressives who successfully lobbied Democratic leaders to remove it from the stopgap bill, the absence of debt limit language should attract bipartisan support for the underlying measure.

Before the cloture vote, Democrats objected to a McConnell request to replace the text of the House-passed bill with a substitute he introduced last week with Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. Their bill is identical in most respects to the Democrats' CR except that it includes the Iron Dome funds and drops the debt ceiling suspension.

'Avoidable disaster'

Democratic leaders have repeatedly rejected that suggestion, saying that addressing the debt limit has been a bipartisan exercise for years. Democrats also note that even if they weren’t advancing the reconciliation package, the debt limit would need suspended to account for ongoing COVID-19 spending as well as deficits incurred from past legislation enacted with support from both parties.

McConnell has led the GOP opposition to debt limit legislation for months. He's said Democrats shouldn't expect their votes after using the partisan budget reconciliation process to add $1.9 trillion for pandemic aid to the debt in March, plus some unspecified amount under the fiscal 2022 budget resolution though Democrats say that'll be fully offset.

“After today there will be no doubt about which party in this chamber is working to solve the problems that face our country and which party is accelerating us toward unnecessary avoidable disaster," Schumer said on the floor ahead of the vote Monday.

For now, each political party is firmly dug in, calling on the other to follow their own plan for the debt limit.

Republicans say Democrats should move quickly to revise the fiscal 2022 budget resolution so they can pass a debt limit increase without GOP backing. Democrats say there's not enough time, given estimates from groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center that a debt limit breach could occur as soon as Oct. 15.

The BPC said in an analysis last week that in the weeks after Treasury runs out of cash and borrowing room, about 40 percent of all federal government obligations would have to be delayed or temporarily reduced.

Congressional leaders still have time to resolve the dispute before the fiscal year ends Thursday at midnight. One fallback option is removing the debt limit language from the package, though Democrats could advance a shorter stopgap spending bill in an attempt to line up the government funding and debt ceiling deadlines.

If a stopgap spending bill isn’t enacted during the next three days, a funding lapse would begin, requiring “exempt” federal employees to continue working without pay and “nonexempt” federal employees to be sent home without pay.

A shutdown likely wouldn’t have a significant impact on public health efforts to address COVID-19, though it would still cause disruptions, according to the Biden administration.

“A great deal of public health — if not all of it, most of the public health work —would be exempted from a government shutdown,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “But that doesn’t change the fact that having services shutdown, staffing cut in different agencies is not in the interest of addressing any crisis we face, including the pandemic.”