The risk of a shutdown is growing as Senate and House conservatives threaten to defund the government unless President Biden and Senate Democrats agree to secure the southern border.
The border fight already has hopelessly delayed a supplemental funding bill that includes aid to Ukraine and Israel.
Now conservatives in both chambers are shifting their attention to regular spending bills, which they see as their greatest leverage to get Biden to crack down on the flow of migrants into the country.
“There’s going to be a big effort to make sure we do nothing on funding unless we secure the border,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told EuroJournal on Wednesday. “That’s going to be the big fight.
“Everybody knows that the southern border now is a clear and present danger, the country knows it’s a clear and present danger. The numbers [of migrants] are staggering,” he said. “I’m going to work with anybody I can to make sure there won’t be any funding bill done until there’s a secure border.
“Everybody I’ve talked to in the House, that’s where they are,” he added. “Everybody I’m talking to believes that.”
The government would enter a partial shutdown if Congress does not provide funding for military construction and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development by Jan. 19. The rest of the government must be funded by Feb. 2.
Scott said that conservatives are looking to attach major border security reforms to regular government funding legislation because it doesn’t look like the emergency package that included Ukraine and Israel aid will move anytime soon.
The Florida senator made his comments after Texas Rep. Chip Roy (R) circulated a letter Tuesday urging his colleagues to hold up government funding legislation until Biden and Democrats agree to the border security and asylum reforms included in H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act, which the House passed in May.
“We must make funding for federal government operations contingent on the president signing H.R. 2, or its functional equivalent, into law and stopping the flow across our border (with demonstrable near-zero results),” he wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter.
Roy, the policy chair of the House Freedom Caucus, acknowledged he and his conservative colleagues will be accused of provoking a shutdown and suggested they would support funding for essential services, including salaries for Border Patrol agents.
Other prominent conservatives are taking a similarly hard line on funding the government without a deal to significantly reduce the flow of migrants from Mexico.
“I will not vote to fund the government until our border is secure,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) wrote in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The key figure in deciding how the debate will play out is Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who visited the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, with about 60 other House Republicans on Wednesday.
Asked whether he would shut down the government over the problems at the border, Johnson highlighted securing the border and cutting nondefense spending as two of his top priorities.
“We have been working in earnest and in good faith with the Senate and the White House virtually every day through the holiday trying to come to an agreement,” he said.
“And let me tell you what our top two priorities are right now. In summary, we want to get the border closed and secured, first; and we want to make sure that we reduce nondefense discretionary spending,” he said.
Johnson told EuroJournal’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday that the push to link border security reform to a broad government funding deal has strong support beyond members of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
“I don’t think it’s just the Freedom Caucus,” he said when asked about refusing to keep the government open if the border situation is not addressed in a significant way. “I think you have most House Republicans who are responding to their constituents’ concerns about this. So you are hearing some — some deep resolve.”
But Senate Democrats are just as adamantly opposed to some of the border measures floated by Johnson and House conservatives. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last month blasted the House-passed border bill as “a non-starter.”
Political and policy experts warn merging the negotiations on border security with government funding is a recipe for a shutdown.
“It’s either going to slow or torpedo the budget negotiations because border security is one of the most complicated and politically contentious issues out there. It’s not something that can be resolved in two weeks of conversation. People feel intensely about that issue, opinions are all over the map,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Further complicating the prospects for a deal, Johnson declared in November he’s “done with short-term” continuing resolutions that fund government for only a few weeks or months to buy negotiators more time to reach a longer-term agreement.
Getting a deal to fund the government was going to be tough even without the polarizing issue of border security, because Senate and House leaders still haven’t agreed to a top-line spending number. Conservatives in both chambers have demanded cuts that Democrats dismiss as unacceptable.
David Cleary, a Republican strategist and former Senate GOP aide, said a government shutdown “seems very likely at this point.”
“There’s no agreement on the top-line numbers, and on top of that you have the Senate side deal that they think is part of the deal [on the overall spending caps] that the House has no knowledge or participation in,” he said. “Right now it doesn’t sound like there’s movement toward reaching a deal on anything.”
Cleary said that adding the border security negotiations to efforts to reach an overall deal on spending will further complicate the situation.
“It portends a very difficult negotiation because the House is down to a two-seat majority, and a new Speaker who’s not interested in giving up his job is not going to buck the will of his government to keep government funded,” he said of Speaker Johnson. “Your average House Republican doesn’t really care about continuing the funding of the government if the border isn’t secure.”
Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was booted from his leadership position by a handful of angry House conservatives after he brought to the House floor in late September a relatively clean continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels.
Now the big question is whether Johnson, who was just elected Speaker on Oct. 25 after several other candidates were rejected, has enough power to pass government funding measures with Democratic votes without facing a motion to replace him by frustrated conservatives.
Schumer told reporters Wednesday in the Capitol that Johnson has been “quite involved” in negotiations over a top-line budget number for fiscal 2024.
And the Democratic leader acknowledged that Congress needs to address the huge flow of migrants across the border, which now averages around 10,000 people a day.
“We need to fix the border. There’s virtually unanimous agreement among Democrats and Republicans about that,” he told reporters Wednesday.
“We just have to figure out how to do it in a way that can get 60 votes here in the Senate, and the majority of votes there in the House, and get to the president’s desk. So everyone’s going to have to give something to get this done,” he said.
Johnson’s involvement in negotiations to fund the government is fueling optimism among Senate Democrats that Senate and House leaders will reach a deal later this month.
A Senate Democratic aide dismissed the rumblings from Scott, Roy and Lee by arguing they would be unlikely to vote for any spending bill that has a chance of passing Congress and getting Biden’s signature.
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