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.

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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 PortmanHouse votes to boost retirement savings The Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget WANTED: A Republican with courage 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks 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.

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"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 JeffriesThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment 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 SmuckerLawmakers divided over how to end shutdowns for good How to keep government running when lawmakers fail to do their job Key Dem chairwoman opposes bill to automatically avoid shutdowns 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: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senators offer bipartisan bill to help US firms remove Huawei equipment from networks DOJ plans to show Senate Intel less-redacted Mueller report, filing shows 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyRepublicans spend more than million at Trump properties The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes 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 HoyerSteyer plans impeachment push targeting Democrats over recess The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Pelosi faces tipping point on Trump impeachment MORE (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyDemocrats advance more spending bills, defying Trump budget requests Congress reaches deal on disaster aid Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight 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.