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Congress faces some key obstacles to averting a government shutdown next week

Ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline, the key unresolved issues are reform of permitting, Ukraine aid, Covid relief money, the length of a stopgap bill and adding disaster assistance.
Image: Mitch McConnel, Chuck Schumer
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chats with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Oct. 25, 2017.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders have less than 10 days to avert a government shutdown, and they have yet to resolve a host of issues that are holding up passage of a bill.

There’s no palpable hunger for a shutdown so close to the Nov. 8 midterm elections, so Congress must pass a bill by midnight Sept. 30 to avert a lapse in funding. The legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate, giving Republicans substantial power to shape the continuing resolution, known as a “CR” on Capitol Hill.

As is often the case, demands to attach new spending provisions have complicated the task.

“The cleaner the bill is, the more likely” it is to pass quickly, said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D.

"I don’t think their members want to be around here well into October having to defend or talk about a government shutdown when they control all of the whole of government right now,” Thune added. “So I think everybody’s going to be mutually incentivized to try and keep this as clean as possible.”

Here are the main issues that need to be resolved before Oct. 1:

Permitting reform

To secure his decisive vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, Democratic leaders promised Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., they would pass legislation by the end of September to overhaul the permitting process for some infrastructure projects.

The legislation, which is still in the works, would seek to fast-track the approval process for domestic energy projects, including natural gas pipelines. The promise has divided the party, as a group of progressive lawmakers seeks to prevent the policy from being added to the funding bill, arguing that it would be a step backward in the nation’s transition to clean energy.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., reiterated his promise Tuesday, telling reporters, “Permitting reform is part of the IRA, and I intend to add it to the CR and get it done.”

Republicans are cool to the idea, still angry with Democrats for having circumvented them on the climate-health-tax bill and not interested in delivering votes to help them fulfill a promise to Manchin.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that if Democrats want permitting reform, they should take up a separate plan by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., that has broad GOP support. But Manchin dismissed her bill as a “messaging” document that doesn’t have the votes to pass.

Manchin has said he’ll release his own permitting proposal Wednesday, promising it would “not bypass any of the environmental reviews” and that it would “accelerate the time frame” for approving infrastructure projects.

He added: “I’m not shutting down the government. I’m voting for it, so whoever votes against this is shutting it down.”

Ukraine aid

President Joe Biden has asked Congress for $11.7 billion in aid to help Ukraine fight Russia. Congressional leaders are optimistic about including the funding, given that many Republicans have voiced continued support for Ukraine. After a classified House briefing this week, proponents emphasized the need for the funds.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Tuesday that the “only way” the war will end is when Russian President Vladimir Putin “realizes that his plan will not work, that he’s not going to take over Ukraine, he is forced to come to the negotiating table and stop the war.”

“So we’re very focused on making sure Ukraine has the ability to defend itself,” he said.

But there is no GOP consensus on Ukraine funding, as some in the party “don’t want to spend any money,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican appropriator, who is at the center of a series of intraparty divisions about how to proceed.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said Tuesday that despite “clear abuses and atrocities” by Russia, he opposes “blank checks” for Ukraine without further justification for the funds or cuts elsewhere to pay for them.

“Count me against throwing more money at Ukraine without having a serious conversation about guns and butter — a serious conversation about why we’re spending it, how it’s in our national security interest,” Roy said.

Covid relief money

There is less optimism that Covid relief funds will be included, particularly after Biden declared Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that “the pandemic is over.” Republicans, who have long been skeptical of the idea of additional coronavirus aid funds, have said his comment negates the justification for it.

“The president saying the pandemic is over is just kind of mind-boggling. He wants tens of billions for Covid, and he says the pandemic is over,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a physician. “I think that is more related to the midterm elections and him wanting to present a happy face on what’s happening in the United States.” 

But Democrats haven’t given up, and they argue that Covid is still infecting and killing Americans every day.

“Covid is obviously in a much better place than it was. Thank God people are living more normally, and I’ve seen psychologically uplift all around Virginia because of that,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “But Covid is not over. Cases, hospitalizations, deaths, mental health aspects of Covid, long Covid. We still have to figure out ways to do our best to keep people safe.”

Disaster assistance

It’s possible Congress will add some disaster relief funding to the pot after a spate of wildfires, floods and storms wreaked havoc across the country this summer.

The size of a potential aid package is unclear, but appropriators expect to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, especially after Hurricane Fiona devastated Puerto Rico this week, flooding towns and cities and knocking out power to more than 1 million people. 

Meanwhile, record flooding in Kentucky, home to McConnell, killed nearly 40 people and damaged thousands of homes in July.

“With the Republican leader in the Senate from Kentucky, we’re probably going to have that,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a veteran appropriator. “And we’ve got a big problem [in Puerto Rico], and we know it’s going to be an expensive problem, and I always remind people on our side that those are all American citizens.”

How long to fund the government

Congressional leaders want to pass a bill to keep the government running until sometime in December, punting the issue for now and setting Congress up to try to hash out a full-year funding bill before the holiday recess. But conservatives are rebelling, saying Congress should push the issue into 2023 in the hope that the GOP will seize the majority and write legislation to its liking.

The pressure comes from the far-right House Freedom Caucus and a group of 14 senators, including Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the Senate Republican campaign committee. “The CR should go through the beginning of the next Congress,” Scott said Tuesday.

Cassidy agreed, predicting that “Republicans are going to do pretty well in November” and saying, “We probably want to have the American people’s will expressed in January instead of a holdover in December.”

Others reject the idea — including Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Shelby, the vice chair, who aren’t seeking re-election and want to go out with a larger deal.

“We ought to do our job,” Shelby said, lamenting that “some people are saying kick it down the road.”