WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US Senate announced it would vote on a stopgap funding bill Thursday to prevent a government shutdown with just hours to spare, as lawmakers stare down a number of deadlines with massive stakes for the economy and US President Joe Biden’s sweeping domestic agenda.
The coming days are expected to be the most critical yet of Biden’s presidency, as he negotiates the tricky passage of two giant spending bills and a fix to lift the debt ceiling without the support of Republicans.
But the most urgent priority is funding for federal agencies, and Senate Democrats say they will pass temporary legislation early Thursday, hours before the money runs out, to keep the lights on until December 3.
The bill, which includes $6.3 billion to help Afghan refugees and $28.6 billion in disaster aid, is expected to have broad cross-party support and should advance from the House of Representatives to Biden’s desk soon after the Senate gives its green light.
“We have agreement on the CR — the continuing resolution — to prevent the government shutdown. And we should be voting on that tomorrow morning,” Chuck Schumer, the party’s leader in the upper chamber, said late Wednesday.
Shutdowns typically mean hundreds of thousands of government employees being sent home as federal services and properties close.
There has never been a shutdown during an emergency such as the pandemic, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2018-19 stoppage wiped $11 billion from the US economy.
With the threat of the shutdown off the table, Democratic leadership would be free to focus on raising the debt ceiling and passing Biden’s sputtering domestic agenda — a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan and a $3.5 trillion spending plan.
The bills are central to Biden’s legacy, but both risk failing because of feuding between the Democrats’ progressive and centrist factions.
In a sign of the jitters unsettling the West Wing, Biden canceled a Wednesday trip to Chicago, instead staying in Washington to lobby holdouts ahead of an uncertain House vote on infrastructure.
Legislators were due to deliver their verdicts on that bill on Thursday although even that looked increasingly unlikely with the leftist grouping and the moderates miles apart on a path forward.
The White House regularly points to polling showing Biden’s legislative priorities are broadly popular, although less so in some key swing districts.
“Our objective here is winning two votes, getting these two pieces of important legislation across the finish line, because we know the impact they will have on the American people,” Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
After a day of behind-the-scenes talks with aides and Democratic congressional leaders, Biden attended the lawmakers’ annual baseball game for charity, handing out ice cream bars to both teams — Democrats and Republicans — at Nationals Park.
Lawmakers are deadlocked over the prospect of a first-ever US debt default that would erase an estimated six million jobs and wipe out $15 trillion of household wealth, tanking the economy.
The government is likely to run out of cash on October 18, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned, unless Congress raises the federal borrowing cap.
But Republicans say they won’t help, despite having pressed for hikes under former president Donald Trump, because they want no part in the Democrats’ historically large package of social reforms.
The House passed a “continuing resolution” to keep funding available but the Senate shot down the plan on Monday, with Republicans objecting to a debt ceiling hike that was included in the wording.
Republicans then blocked an effort by Senate Democrats to lift the debt ceiling by a majority vote.
Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republicans in the Senate, accused the Democrats of attempting to “drain money from people’s pockets (and) spend it on socialism.”
“They want to print and borrow trillions of dollars, and then set it on fire,” he said.
The Democratic-led House passed a standalone bill to suspend the debt ceiling until December 16 next year, with support from just one Republican. But it is doomed to fail in the Senate with no backing from the opposition.
“The fact that the Republicans are being so irresponsible is no surprise but, nonetheless, disappointing — as always,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters ahead of the vote.