Congress Cancels The Government Shutdown Apocalypse — For Now

Political disaster averted.

President Joe Biden signed a last-ditch bill late Saturday to fund the government, right after he got it from Congress and only hours before the government was to head into a technical shutdown.

But even as members of both parties expressed relief that millions of military service members would not be required to work without pay and hundreds of thousands of civilian workers would avoid being sent home Monday, the bill to keep the government open is likely to only delay, not resolve, future fights.

“We went from devastating cuts that would have impacted the health, safety and economic well-being of the American people in 24 hours to a spending agreement that meets the needs of the American people, across the board,” crowed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the Democratic leader in the House.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who had resisted allowing the House to vote on a stopgap bill that would fund the government without at least some cuts, said Republicans will try to make cuts in the individual bills that fund various agencies during the time before the short-term bill expires in November.

“It’s easy to be a conservative that wants to do nothing,” he told reporters after the vote. “I believe America wants to find the conservative that can make government work efficiently, effectively and accountable.”

Once the bill had passed the Senate, Biden also praised it, saying in a statement, “This bill ensures that active-duty troops will continue to get paid, travelers will be spared airport delays, millions of women and children will continue to have access to vital nutrition assistance, and so much more. This is good news for the American people.”

The bill is a temporary measure, which will keep the government funded until Nov. 17 at the current rate of federal spending. It also includes provisions to keep certain programs that would expire or otherwise be hampered by a short-term bill, like Federal Aviation Administration programs, extended.

Saturday’s votes were bipartisan, 335-91 in the House and 88-9 in the Senate, but that did not reflect the partisan fissures over spending and — even more deeply — with regard to aid to Ukraine, funding for which was a major public point of contention during the budget showdown.

A small but vocal group of House Republicans started the shutdown ball rolling by insisting the House cut spending to pre-pandemic levels, despite an agreement on a much higher dollar cap reached by House Republicans and the White House earlier this year to avoid a debt default.

But as the Sept. 30 deadline drew nearer, tensions between moderate Republicans, hard-line anti-spending ones that did not believe in temporary funding bills as a matter of principle, and other party members in between those two positions flared. House Republicans over the course of two weeks lost floor votes on procedural issues, an Agriculture funding bill and on Friday a stopgap bill that would have cut some departments by 30%.

Democrats were content to simply watch, placing their hopes on a “clean” short-term funding bill in the Senate with about $6.1 billion in aid to Ukraine as a down payment on a larger supplemental spending bill. The bill drew the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a Ukraine hawk.

But within the space of a few hours Saturday, the entire playing field was upended by McCarthy’s gamble to force Democrats to choose between helping Ukraine or being blamed for shutting down the government. House Democrats initially balked, going so far as to try to adjourn the House to delay a vote on the plan. But in the end, they went along, with 209 Democrats joining 126 Republicans to pass the bill. Ninety Republicans and one Democrat voted against it.

In the Senate there was much more grumbling among Democrats about the loss of the aid, but, facing a deadline only hours away, they also felt there was little choice but to agree.

But the disagreement between the Democratic Senate and the Republican House over the appropriate level of spending by federal agencies and programs outside of Social Security and Medicare still remains. The House will work on more funding bills during what was initially supposed to be a two-week break in early October.

And the Ukraine fight is far from over.

After the short-term funding bill was passed to the Senate, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) delayed it on the floor, apparently demanding a promise that aid to Ukraine would not be swept under the rug. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and McConnell released a joint statement committing to working on the aid “in the coming weeks.”

“I think this is a victory for those of us who are skeptical of indefinite funding for Ukraine, but there’s going to be another fight, whether it’s next week or three weeks from now,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio).

He noted 117 Republicans, slightly more than half of the House Republican conference, voted this week against a smaller $300 million aid package to train Ukrainian troops, saying that meant McCarthy could not bring a larger supplemental Ukraine aid package to the House floor.

“Any Ukraine funding package is going to be dead on arrival in the House,” Vance said.

Even though a large majority of the House and Senate favor more help for Ukraine, the issue’s waning public popularity and the onset of a presidential election will make it increasingly hard to get more aid approved.

And Ukraine has a personal aspect for some lawmakers that will make it tough to find agreement.

Aid opponent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), when asked about the lost funding’s impact in helping Ukraine prevent alleged Russian war crimes and atrocities, said, “My main effort was I don’t want to shut down the government.”

Asked if the vote sent a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Johnson said, “Well, you’ve got Europe. You’ve got Europe. [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy should not be looking at the U.S. taxpayer that this is going to continue, long-term.”

Bennet told reporters he held up the final vote because his mother was born to a Jewish family in 1938 in Poland and lost family during the Holocaust.

“I know how important moments are like this, for the United States to lead the rest of the world. There’s nobody else to lead this,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who supports aid, blamed Biden for not making the public case more forcefully on Ukraine. “Part of this requires the bully pulpit of the presidency and the president has been sort of AWOL in trying to make the case,” he said.

Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), the only Ukrainian American in Congress, voted against the bill Saturday over worries about spending. She said the issue had become politicized. “President Biden did a terrible job of explaining to the American people the importance of that war, why it is in the national interest for Ukraine to win this war,” she said.

But Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former naval aviator in the Gulf War who visited Ukraine only a few weeks ago, reserved the harshest criticism for Ukraine aid opponents.

“It really comes down to this is a fight between good and evil. The American people always fall on the side of good, in my opinion, and we’ve got to continue to do that,” he said.

As he left the Capitol after voting, Kelly said some aid opponents probably didn’t care what happened to Ukrainians and some just didn’t see the bigger picture.

And some, he said, are simply watching out for former president Donald Trump, who has bragged Putin liked him.

“Probably other individuals, for a difficult-to-understand rationale, feel the former president has a certain kind of relationship with the president of Russia. I think that could be a factor, too, unfortunately,” he said.