Members of Congress are just like everyone else at this time of year. They’re rushing to finish their “to-do” do lists in the “St. Nick“ of time before Christmas.
The most important thing lawmakers must do is avoid a weekend government shutdown.
“We’re going to do what seems to have been done my whole Congressional career. We’re going to wait till the last moment,” lamented House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Greg Meeks, D-N.Y.
Appearing on MSNBC, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., spoke of how she was scheduled to play Christmas carols on the piano at a Senate prayer breakfast.
“I hope I don’t have to pull up the piano on Christmas Eve,” said Stabenow. “But it’s going to be close.”
Lawmakers lamented that it’s always a sprint just before the holiday.
“I’m reminded of that Christmas song ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas. But only in my dreams.’ I hope that doesn’t come through,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., practically crooning.
Lawmakers prepared a stopgap spending bill — known as a continuing resolution (CR) in Congress-ese — to avoid a government shutdown this weekend. That would give Congressional appropriators time to finalize a massive $1.6 trillion, omnibus spending package before a new deadline next week.
“An omnibus is preferable to the CR. But a CR is certainly preferable to a shutdown,” observed Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the top GOPer on the Rules panel.
The broader bill would fund the government through next fall, prospectively approved just before Dec. 25.
“Do it before Christmas,” urged Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “Let’s get this job done this year.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., drew a line in the snow.
“This needs to be finished no later than late evening on the 22nd. And we intend to be on the road going home on the 23rd,” said McConnell. “If we can’t meet that deadline, we’d be happy to pass a short term CR into early next year.”
A short-term CR may avert an immediate shutdown. But neither side wants that. An abbreviated CR means Democrats wouldn’t stamp their imprimatur on federal spending for the rest of the government’s fiscal year. Some conservatives say they want to kick spending to January so the new Republican-controlled House can write its own funding bill emphasizing its priorities. But with a narrow, at times mutinous majority, House Republicans may struggle to pass anything next year, the least of which is government funding.
So Democrats are trying to squeeze their spending preferences into Christmas stockings now before Republicans seize the House next year.
Conservatives believe it’s time to stand up to veteran GOP leaders.
“We’ve got Mitch McConnell preparing to roll the House right now on additional trillions of dollars in spending. Tell me how something changes here,” complained Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn.
McConnell countered that Republicans had little choice, toiling in the minority.
“We’re on defense. We’re dealing with the cards that we were dealt,” said McConnell.
But that’s precisely why conservatives demand a short-term spending bill through the holidays and into January. House Republicans would score the opportunity to take a crack at funding the government.
“This should be a no brainer,” observed Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. “We just won the House. Why would we want to be part of any omnibus that we work out with (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and (Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.?”
But other Republicans tempered expectations for next year.
“Frankly, I don’t think you’ve got much more because Democrats will still have the presidency and you still have to deal with a filibuster in the Senate,” said Cole.
This is why conservatives like Perry are taking on McConnell — and some are battling so hard over tapping House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as speaker.
“You can’t expect different outcomes if you keep doing the same things with the same people the same way,” said Perry.
If Congress eventually adopts an omnibus spending bill, McCarthy — or any other House Speaker — won’t have to worry about funding the government until next September.
But there’s a lot which can unfold between now and Christmas.
“They’re going to push it to the line,” predicted Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. “Next week. Probably the 23rd, I think. And then that’s when they’ll get all of their garbage in and stack it up. Both sides do it. I just hope we can do a little better when we’re in the majority. It’s kind of disgusting, really.”
By Tuesday night, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations panel, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., announced a bipartisan “framework” agreement. The leading House Republican appropriator, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Tex., was conspicuously silent.
By Wednesday morning, the word of the day on Capitol Hill was “framework,” with Schumer and McConnell extolling the breakthrough of a “framework agreement” during morning floor speeches.
But did rank-and-file lawmakers know what’s in the vaunted framework?
“Of course not. Nobody does, no. Nobody knows,” laughed Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
“It’s cooked up behind closed doors,” said Braun.
“We’re all waiting to see details,” said Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.
Congressional leaders touted the package sight unseen.
“I was glad to hear Sen. Shelby announced yesterday evening that negotiators have reached a bipartisan, bicameral framework,” declared McConnell.
But even Shelby was fuzzy on the bill’s cost when asked in a Senate corridor.
“I don’t have the exact number with me right now. But it’s what we worked out,” said Shelby.
McCarthy then excoriated the retiring Leahy and Shelby or forging the framework.
“We’ve got two members leading appropriations in the Senate who will no longer be here or be able to be held accountable to the constituents. They should not jam the American public,” said McCarthy.
In his quest to grasp the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy disavowed that his opposition to the omnibus was political posturing to court favor with skeptics. It was thought that McCarthy would have an easier path to the Speakership if Republicans captured a bigger House majority.
“It doesn’t matter whether we have a 30 seat majority or a five seat majority,” said McCarthy, stealing his position.
It takes days to finalize the omnibus. So that’s why leaders moved quickly on a short-term bill to avert a shutdown.
“This CR is the gateway drug to an omnibus spending bill next week,” complained Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex., on the House floor.
Some lawmakers accused leaders of using the upcoming holiday as a wedge.
“Why Christmas? That’s when the anxieties of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress are at their maximum. We all feel the pressure to get something done the most,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Still, some Republicans just want to fund the Pentagon. That influences their vote.
“I’m inclined to vote for it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Continuing Resolutions are a disaster for the military.”
So there’s lot which can go wrong between now and next week to fund the government. There always is at Christmastime on Capitol Hill.
The votes will eventually be final. Once it’s done, everything is set.
And, unlike Christmas gifts, there are no returns.