Countdown to shutdown: Congress races to keep US open for business

Washington (AFP) –

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The US Senate wrangled Wednesday over a stopgap funding bill with just one day left to prevent a government shutdown, as lawmakers stare down a number of deadlines with massive stakes for the economy and 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, which runs out at the end of the day on Thursday, and Senate Democrats are preparing temporary legislation 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 in both chambers of Congress.

"We can approve this measure quickly and send it to the House, so we can reach the president's desk before funding expires midnight tomorrow," Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate Democrats, said in the chamber.

It was unclear by early evening if the Senate would go ahead with a late vote before packing up for the day or sleep on it, leaving it until just hours before Thursday's deadline.

Shutdowns typically mean hundreds of thousands of government employees being sent home as federal services and properties close.

- Biden legacy -

There has never been a shutdown during a national emergency such as the pandemic, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2018-19 stoppage wiped $11 billion from the 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.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said a shutdown would be 'the last thing the American people need'
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said a shutdown would be 'the last thing the American people need' Olivier DOULIERY AFP/File

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, 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.

Lawmakers are also 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.

- 'Irresponsible' -

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 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.

US debt ceiling
US debt ceiling Laurence CHU AFP

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.