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Congress averts shutdown, sends 9-week funding patch to Biden’s desk

Congress thwarted a government shutdown that would occur at midnight on Thursday after both chambers swiftly passed a short-term spending bill, sending the measure to President Joe Biden’s desk just hours before federal cash expires.

The House passed the stopgap bill in a 254-175 vote on Thursday afternoon, just a few hours after the Senate approved the bill in a 65-35 tally. The continuing resolution would keep spending levels static for both the military and non-defense programs, buying Congress until Dec. 3 to either work out a broader deal on new funding totals or yet another temporary patch.

The stopgap amounts to a bipartisan “glimmer of hope,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday, while the rest of Biden’s agenda remains in jeopardy on Capitol Hill.

The roughly two-month spending bill is “plenty” of time to work out a government funding accord, said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican appropriator in the upper chamber. “But it’s not a question of time. It’s a question of getting people together,” he said, noting that bipartisan talks on an annual spending package have yet to begin in earnest.

Shelby pledged to push for more military funding than the $715 billion Biden has proposed, and the suggestion to increase that money is already winning support from some moderate Democrats in Congress.

Top Democrats are keenly aware that, in averting one fiscal cliff, they have forfeited leverage in heading off another — a national debt default expected to hit in less than 20 days.

“With so many things happening here in Washington, the last thing the American people need is for the government to grind to a halt. But, of course, we have more work to do,” Schumer said on the floor Thursday. “Just as our Republican colleagues realize that a government shutdown would be catastrophic, they should realize that a default on the national debt would be even worse.”

After Senate Republicans followed through this week on their threats to block action on the debt limit, Democratic leaders decided to forgo an immediate remedy to the impending debt crisis, in the interest of preventing a government shutdown.

“A shutdown is not anything anyone wants,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated Thursday, adding that “we didn’t think we’d ever have one.”

Besides stripping language to waive the debt limit, Democrats also dropped $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system before the measure first passed the House last week. While it was progressive Democrats who initially objected to that funding, some Republicans have also taken issue with the fact that the new spending would have added to the deficit rather than be offset by savings or new revenue.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that the removal of the missile defense funding was “seriously disappointing,” casting blame across the aisle.

“It honestly baffles me that defensive aid to our ally Israel has become a thorny subject for the political left,” McConnell said on the floor.

Before the Senate passed the stopgap funding bill, the chamber voted on three Republican amendments to appease the minority party. A proposal from Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas that would have barred federal money from being used to enforce Covid-19 vaccine mandates fell 50-50.

The Senate also voted on a “no-budget, no pay” amendment from Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana that would have denied lawmakers their paychecks until they approve a budget for a new fiscal year and fully fund the government at updated levels. That proposal was subjected to a 60-vote bar and fell 53-47.

While the spending bill extends funding at current levels for most federal agencies and programs, lawmakers agreed to a few exceptions Biden requested earlier this month. The legislation includes $6.3 billion to help resettle Afghan allies who were evacuated during the U.S. withdrawal and nearly $29 billion in aid to communities recovering from major disasters like Hurricane Ida, which hit the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard four weeks ago.

Many Senate Republicans have taken issue with language in the funding bill that would grant Afghan refugees REAL IDs, the federally recognized identification cards Congress mandated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ramp up the security of ID checks at airports and federal facilities. So the Senate voted on an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that would have nixed that ID eligibility.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) noted that scrapping the Real ID exception would not stop Afghan refugees from applying for drivers licenses or the enhanced federal identification cards. It would only uphold the same “normal, commonsense security process” other non-citizens go through, he said.

Cotton’s proposal, which fell 50-50, also would have required the Biden administration to report to Congress on how many Afghan refugees receive benefits like resettlement assistance and directed the Department of Homeland Security to interview Afghan refugees seeking asylum within 15 days of their application, rather than within 45 days.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) urged senators to reject all three GOP amendments, arguing that there would be a shutdown if any one were approved.

“With only 13 hours before the government is set to shut down, any one of these amendments could imperil” the stopgap, Leahy said on the floor. “They are controversial and could complicate House passage.”

Now that they have cleared the stopgap funding bill, Democrats will need to act quickly in the next few weeks on the debt limit or risk an economically devastating default on the more than $28 trillion the nation has borrowed.

Schumer said Thursday that he plans to call a vote as early as next week on the House-passed bill that would suspend the debt limit into December of next year. The New York Democrat is appealing to GOP senators to forgo a legislative filibuster on that measure, to allow Democrats to pass it with a simple majority vote.

Republican senators already twice rejected that plea this week.

“By now, we are not asking Republicans to vote with us to solve the debt limit crisis they’ve created,” Schumer said. “If they want to oppose this measure and bring us closer to financial disaster, they can write their names in the history books as the senator that would let the country default for the first time ever.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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