Lawmakers divided over how to end shutdowns for good

Bipartisan efforts to end shutdowns for good are losing momentum due to a lack of consensus over the right strategy.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have rallied around the idea of automatically funding the government if Congress misses a spending deadline, but the biggest problem may be that it is too popular.

ADVERTISEMENT

The variety of proposals put forth has made it harder for lawmakers to coalesce around one bill amid bicameral talks to keep the government funded beyond a Feb. 15 deadline. At least five different measures have been offered in the House and Senate over the past few weeks.

Proponents are pushing to include a shutdown-prevention measure in any long-term spending deal, and they’re hoping that the negative financial and economic effects of the recent 35-day partial government shutdown are still on people's minds.

That also means they’re worried about losing even more momentum if one of their bills isn’t part of a final funding deal.

"I mean, it makes the most sense to do it in the context of this package,” Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on Coronavirus stimulus talks hit setback as crisis deepens MORE (R-Ohio), who introduced one of the proposals, told The Hill. “There seems to be bipartisan recognition after the 35-day historic shutdown, longest ever, that we need to do something and we need to take advantage of that newfound urgency.”

The most recent shutdown, which ended Jan. 25, cost the U.S. economy an estimated $11 billion, with $3 billion expected to be permanently lost despite government operations resuming, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of federal employees missed two consecutive paychecks during the standoff; they later received back pay.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Attacking the Affordable Care Act in the time of COVID-19 DC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill MORE (D-Calif.) said she supports the idea of effectively outlawing shutdowns. But she said the lack of an agreement on exactly how to accomplish that made it unlikely that such a measure would be part of a spending deal.

ADVERTISEMENT

"There's so many possibilities on the table that I don't think that that should be part of this agreement, because there's not a consensus as to what that would be. If there is a consensus, maybe it could be," Pelosi told reporters last week.

With the Feb. 15 deadline just a week away, that leaves little time for lawmakers to back one bill.

The 17-member bipartisan, bicameral conference committee tasked with reaching an agreement on border security to resolve the funding fight that caused the most recent shutdown is aiming to finalize a package by early next week at the latest.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesPelosi says House will review Senate coronavirus stimulus package Pelosi says House will draft its own coronavirus funding bill Senate closes in on trillion-dollar coronavirus stimulus bill MORE (D-N.Y.) said this week that discussions over the shutdown-prevention proposals hadn't advanced very far.

"We all believe that this should be done in a bipartisan way, and we're at a very preliminary stage of having those discussions and working out the particular legislative vehicle that we should employ," Jeffries said after a Democratic Caucus meeting on Wednesday.

Portman's bill would would automatically fund the government at existing levels if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement by a spending deadline. Funding would be reduced by 1 percent after 120 days and again every subsequent 90 days if a deal remains elusive.

Rep. Lloyd SmuckerLloyd Kenneth SmuckerLobbying World Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill Rising number of GOP lawmakers criticize Trump remarks about minority Dems MORE (R-Pa.) introduced a similar measure in the House that would go further with the spending reductions, as a way to motivate lawmakers to reach an agreement. Under his bill, a 5 percent penalty would go into effect on the first day of automatic government funding. It would then be reduced by 2 percent every 60 days.

Another Pennsylvania lawmaker, Rep. Brendan Boyle (D), has a measure that would automatically keep the government funded at current levels for 90 days, without additional penalties.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Coronavirus deal includes funds for mail-in voting | Twitter pulled into fight over virus disinformation | State AGs target price gouging | Apple to donate 10M masks Senator sounds alarm on cyber threats to internet connectivity during coronavirus crisis Senator calls for cybersecurity review at health agencies after hacking incident MORE (D-Va.), meanwhile, sponsored legislation that would keep the government funded at the same level as the previous fiscal year. But it would withhold funding for the legislative branch and the Executive Office of the President in an effort to encourage lawmakers to negotiate.

A group of House Democratic freshmen led by Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) would also impose consequences directly on lawmakers and the president. In addition to keeping the government funded for 30 days, their bill would prohibit the use of funds for lawmaker and executive branch officials' travel, require daily quorum calls and suspend member pay.

Houlahan said that while "in an ideal world I certainly would like to see" that prevention measure, or one like it, in the final funding package, the shutdown has had a lasting effect on new lawmakers who spent almost their first full month in Congress under a shutdown.

"We came into an incredibly dysfunctional situation," Houlahan said. "I certainly won't forget about it. It's the very first thing that happened to me as a freshman."

Most of the top congressional leaders have expressed support for preventing shutdowns, including Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Struggling states warn coronavirus stimulus falls short Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing COVID-19, Bill Barr and the American authoritarian tradition MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House Trump signs T coronavirus relief package MORE (R-Calif.).

But none have endorsed a specific bill.

Some members of leadership have questioned the wisdom of putting government on autopilot and essentially letting Congress off the hook for failing to pass appropriations bills on time. House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House The Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington MORE (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHouse Democrats unveil coronavirus economic response package Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins Trump, Congress struggle for economic deal under coronavirus threat MORE (D-N.Y.) are in that camp.

Smucker suggested that the efforts to mitigate the effects of shutdowns on federal workers were part of a larger problem of Congress failing to abide by its own budget and appropriations process.

"What we really need to do is come back and fix the budget process itself to provide more accountability and more levers that force Congress to pass an annual budget on time as it should," Smucker said.

He predicted that lawmakers would nevertheless be confronted with the issue again if a prevention measure isn't included in the next package to keep the government open.

"We are never far off from a shutdown from the way we've been handling appropriations bills," Smucker said.