Senate squabbling sparks shutdown threat
The threat of a brief government shutdown is growing as the annual defense bill and a stopgap funding measure hit snags that could delay them into the weekend or next week.
Senate leadership had hoped to pass both the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and a one-week continuing resolution Thursday.
Instead, multiple senators are delaying the bills, meaning the Senate might fail to pass the stopgap measure before Friday night's deadline, raising the prospect of a government shutdown.
“It’s got to get done by tomorrow night at midnight ... or a temporary shutdown,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, predicted the government funding bill would get a vote, but "if you don't get a vote on it, you're going to shut the government down."
"I don't believe anybody rationally wants to shut the government down. If they do they need to be talked to," Shelby said.
Thune pointed to multiple hurdles: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is slow walking the NDAA because it reins in President Trump’s ability to pull troops from Afghanistan; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is using the continuing resolution (CR) to try to get a vote on a stimulus checks proposal; and in an ironic twist, a group of senators wants a vote on a bill to prevent future government shutdowns.
"This is clearly not just one side that takes advantage of these moments, but I always think it's unfortunate. We've got our work to do, we all know we need to get it done, it seldom produces a result that a member thinks it's going to produce," said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership.
The setbacks come after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hinted at a rare Friday session.
"For the information of all senators, we should expect the potential for a late night tonight and the possibility of votes tomorrow,” he said.
Part of the headache for leadership is timing and how the bills are lined up for floor votes.
Without cooperation from all senators, the earliest the Senate could take an initial vote on the $740 billion defense bill is Friday, and after that it could still be subjected to an additional 30 hours of debate.
Any action on the government funding measure is stuck behind the defense bill, unless leadership can get an agreement from every senator to let it leapfrog the NDAA. Without full cooperation, the Senate's handling of the stopgap spending bill could drag on for days, well past Friday's midnight deadline.
Thune predicted that the fever would break by the funding deadline and senators would cut a deal that resolved the myriad of outstanding issues and allow the CR to pass Friday.
“We’re at that period ... where everybody is leveraging their position and situation to get what they want at the end. But when you get up against the deadline, my guess is something breaks," he said.
Paul, no stranger to scrambling leadership's floor plans, railed against the defense bill during a floor speech earlier Thursday.
“When a president tries to remove troops, they say, 'Oh, no, no, no. What we really want are 535 generals in Congress to tell him he can't leave a war.' How absurd is that? It's exactly the opposite of what both the Constitution and logic would dictate,” Paul said.
But while speaking to reporters, Paul stressed that the object of his frustration was the NDAA, not the government funding bill. He said he had offered to let the CR pass on Thursday if Senate leaders agreed to push back the defense bill until Monday.
“We’ve offered to allow all the votes to occur today if the final vote on the NDAA would be moved to Monday. So we would allow compression of time and unanimous consent so people could go home today if they would allow the final bill to be on Monday," Paul said.
Typically, leadership would offer Paul an amendment, and he in turn would allow them to speed up votes. But the Kentucky Republican said that under the rules governing the final defense bill, that scenario isn't permissible.
"We looked at that, and I think the logistics of it are, I think, you can't get an amendment on a conference report. They could, by unanimous consent, set up a whole bill and occasionally we can use our leverage to keep them here over the weekend to get a vote," Paul said.
Thune said talks were ongoing with Paul’s staff to try to work out a deal, though any votes were likely to be delayed until at least Friday.
In addition to Paul’s objections on the defense bill, a coalition of senators is trying to use the CR to force votes on their priorities and aren’t ruling out slowing it down.
Sanders wants a vote on a stimulus check proposal that has gained steam with progressives as part of the larger negotiations on a potential COVID-19 relief deal.
“It is absolutely imperative that we provide $1,200 for every working-class adult and $500 for each of their children. This is what we did, unanimously, in the CARES package passed in March. This is what we must do now. Congress cannot go home until we address this crisis,” Sanders said in a statement.
Separately, a group of GOP senators is pushing for a vote on legislation aimed at preventing future government shutdowns. They tried to bring the bill up on Thursday but were blocked.
“We’re looking for a vote. I’m not going to say what we will or will not do,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a member of the group, when asked if they were willing to slow down the CR and risk a shutdown for a vote on legislation to prevent shutdowns.