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 PortmanGOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to combat cyberattacks on state and local governments 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 PelosiPelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' Short defends Trump's tweets as a 'very effective way' to communicate with Americans Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump 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 JeffriesLawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts On The Money: Fed chief warns Congress on deficits | Trump blames Powell after Dow dips slightly | Trump withdraws nomination of former US attorney for Treasury post Jeffries: Trump budget is a 'declaration of war on the American dream' 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 WarnerUS prosecutors bring new charges against China's Huawei Lawmakers grill Census Bureau officials after report on cybersecurity issues Senate GOP blocks three election security bills 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 McConnellTrump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBarr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation Roger Stone witness alleges Trump targeted prosecutors in 'vile smear job' MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySunday shows preview: 2020 Democrats jockey for top spot ahead of Nevada caucuses GOP climate plan faces pushback — from Republicans House GOP campaign arm mocks Democrats after stumbling upon internal info on races 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 HoyerPelosi's staff huddles with aides in both parties on 'surprise' medical billing House panel approves bill to grant DC statehood Democrats bullish on bill to create women's history museum: 'It's an election year' MORE (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyOvernight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Pentagon transferring .8 billion to border wall Democrats should firmly commit to not bring back earmarks 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.