Monday, June 24 2024

Biden, congressional leaders sound optimistic on funding government

Estimated read time 8 min read

President Biden and congressional leaders appear to be closing in on a deal that could keep the government open past the weekend — but lawmakers don’t seem any closer on a breakthrough to send more U.S. aid to Ukraine, even as supplies on the front lines of the war against Russian invaders dwindle.

Facing a Saturday deadline, Biden and leaders in the House and Senate said Tuesday that they hoped to pass legislation to avert a looming partial shutdown, after what lawmakers described as a productive and intense Oval Office meeting on federal spending.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said after the gathering that top leaders of both parties in Congress were “optimistic” about passing new measures to prevent the partial shutdown, set to begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, which would sideline a vast swath of vital services and federal workers. The closure would force critical services at the Department of Transportation offline. Food stamp programs could quickly run low on funding. Housing assistance for millions of families would fall into jeopardy. Another, larger shutdown cliff awaits just a week later, when funds for the rest of the government will also expire unless Congress acts.

“I think that it’s Congress’s responsibility to fund the government,” Biden told the group before the meeting. “We’ve got to get about doing it. A shutdown would damage the economy significantly. I think we can all agree to that. And we need bipartisan solutions.”

Johnson said that lawmakers were working “quite literally around-the-clock to get that job done” and that he expects Congress will be able to avert a shutdown.

He and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have already agreed broadly on how much the government should spend on discretionary programs this fiscal year — $1.7 trillion — and on roughly how to allocate it among Cabinet departments, but the final details are proving tougher to nail down. House and Senate budget negotiators are struggling to cinch a deal to fund the departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Energy — the agencies whose funding is set to expire this weekend. The two chambers still disagree over specific policy matters on a range of issues, such as anti-hunger assistance and access to firearms for some veterans.

If lawmakers don’t have time to finish talks and pass legislation to fund those departments before Friday night, they might need to adopt additional short-term funding bills — called continuing resolutions, or CRs — to keep the government open while they complete negotiations and steer the legislation through the House and Senate.

In Ukraine, the situation is far more dire, lawmakers and national security officials say. Commanders there have begun ordering troops to ration munitions in the nation’s fight against Russia’s invasion. Without new U.S. defense assistance, experts say, Russia will probably be able to turn the tide of the war, which has been mired in a stalemate for months. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces already captured the former Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka this month, a battle in which a lack of U.S.-provided arms proved decisive, officials say.

Still, many Republicans, especially in the House, have been reluctant to send any more money to Ukraine. And once the doors closed Tuesday after Biden’s opening statement to the lawmakers — Johnson, Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — Schumer said the session “was one of the most intense I have ever encountered in my many meetings in the Oval Office.”

President Biden met with House and Senate leaders at the White House on Feb. 27, urging emergency aid to Ukraine and Israel and to keep the government open. (Video: Billy Tucker/The Washington Post)

McConnell, one of Ukraine’s strongest backers in the Senate, led off the national security portion of the gathering, lawmakers said. He heaped pressure on Johnson to put Senate-backed legislation with funding for Ukraine, for Israel and for countering Chinese aggression in the Pacific on the House floor, where it would probably pass with bipartisan support despite vocal opposition among some in the GOP.

“Not only do we not want to shut the government down, we don’t want the Russians to win in Ukraine,” McConnell told reporters afterward.

White House spokesman John Kirby said later Tuesday that it was time for Johnson to deliver on the aid for Ukraine that the speaker says he supports.

“The Russians started taking some other towns and villages” in the last 48 to 72 hours, Kirby said. “They’re on the move. This is not some frozen conflict. And so we urge the speaker, when he says ‘a timely fashion,’ that he actually lives up to that.”

The far-right flank of the House GOP conference is strongly opposed to additional Ukraine funding and has threatened to oust Johnson from the speakership over it. Johnson insisted Tuesday that Biden take executive action to curb illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border and that Congress take up harsh new immigration restrictions in exchange for considering Ukraine assistance.

“When I showed up today, my purpose was to express what I believe is the obvious truth, and that is that we must take care of America’s needs first,” Johnson said. “When you talk about America’s needs, you have to talk first about our open border.”

Johnson has, though, already ruled out a bipartisan Senate compromise on border security that was reached after painstaking negotiations to find a measure that could satisfy GOP demands to address immigration alongside Ukraine. Former president Donald Trump, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination this year, came out strongly against that plan, helping to doom it.

The foreign aid bill also includes $14 billion for Israel to replenish its military defenses against Hamas. But Biden was more careful when speaking of that funding, seeming to try to quell opposition from many House Democrats to sending unconditional aid to Israel as it carries out its scorched-earth campaign in Gaza.

“We need to turn to the supplemental. We need to deal with the Israelis,” Biden said. “But that also contains a significant portion having to do with humanitarian assistance in the Palestinian area, which I think is important.”

The path forward looks significantly clearer on averting a shutdown, though the time crunch Congress has put itself in remains a problem.

Senate Republicans during their weekly lunch meeting Tuesday discussed the possibility of a CR that stretches for only a few days to prevent a partial shutdown, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. Schumer sounded a similar tone outside the White House.

“The speaker said unequivocally that he wants to avoid a government shutdown. We made it clear that means not letting any of the government appropriations bills lapse, which means you need some CRs to get that done,” Schumer said.

Policy disputes unrelated to spending levels — on a range of items such as border security, reproductive rights, anti-poverty assistance and gun access — have threatened to capsize negotiations over the funding legislation and have ground Congress to a standstill in recent weeks.

Far-right Republicans, led by the House Freedom Caucus, oppose the spending amount that Johnson and Schumer agreed to, and they have urged the speaker to extract conservative policy provisions in negotiations with Democratic and Senate counterparts if he can’t win spending cuts.

But Johnson has a brittle two-seat majority and exceptionally little leverage in the talks. GOP demands have pushed the talks up against the shutdown deadline, negotiators say.

In recent days, Democrats have increased their demands for additional funding for the anti-hunger program for low-income women, infants and children, known as WIC. The program has seen an enrollment surge since the start of 2023, drawing down federal funds faster than anticipated, experts say. Biden requested $1 billion to plug that gap.

In exchange for that funding, House Republicans — led by the chief agriculture bill negotiator, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) — want changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The proposal would launch a pilot program that would restrict participants’ purchases to “nutrient dense” items, according to a person familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fragile negotiations.

The GOP push for additional policy “riders” — so named because the often-unrelated provisions ride along on spending bills — appeared to fizzle, though, after the White House meeting.

“There is a little back and forth on different issues that different people want, but I don’t think those are insurmountable,” Schumer said. “The fact that we made it so clear that we can’t have the shutdown because it hurts so many people in so many different ways, even for a short period of time, was very apparent in the room, and the speaker did not reject that.”

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top GOP appropriator, signaled to reporters that conservative negotiators were placing less emphasis on policy in negotiations, which she said were “in better shape than people realize.”

And Sen. Deb Fischer (Neb.), one of the Republican negotiators on the spending bills, said she didn’t think sticking to demands for the policy riders was helpful: “It would be a discussion that would just lengthen the process.”

Yasmeen Abutaleb, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.

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