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Biden meets with congressional leaders ahead of government shutdown deadline

Once again, lawmakers are racing to prevent a catastrophe of their own making. They must meet two deadlines to fund the government: One Friday night and another next week.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met with the top four congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday as they scramble to send military aid to foreign allies and avert a partial government shutdown at the end of the week.

Leaders left the meeting in agreement that Congress should avoid a shutdown, though they’ve yet to release legislation to do so.

“It’s Congress' responsibility to fund the government," Biden said at the top of the meeting. "A shutdown would damage the economy significantly, and I think we all agree to that, and we need a bipartisan solution."

"I think the need is urgent ... and I think the consequences of inaction every day in Ukraine are dire," he added.

Democrats leaving the White House said the discussion in the private meeting got passionate at times, particularly on the subject of billions of dollars in stalled aid for Ukraine.

"The meeting on Ukraine was one of the most intense I've ever encountered of my many meetings in the Oval Office," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who just returned from a trip to Ukraine. "We said to the speaker: Get it done!"

Schumer said he personally warned House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., that history will judge him harshly if he does not act on Ukraine and it falls to Russia. And he appeared to suggest that all of the leaders in the room ganged up on Johnson on Ukraine.

"The intensity in that room was surprising to me because of the passion of the president, the vice president, Leader McConnell and myself," Schumer said. "We made it clear to him we can't tarry or the war could be lost."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been a vocal advocate for Ukraine aid, which has stalled in the House.

Speaking after Schumer, Johnson said the House is looking at options on Ukraine and other foreign aid and will "address that in a timely manner." But he said he emphasized the need to secure America's southern border in the room and later in his first one-on-one meeting with Biden.

"The first priority of the country is our border and making sure it's secure," Johnson told reporters. "I believe the president can take executive authority right now today to change that, and I told him that again today in person as I've said to him many times publicly and privately over the last several weeks."

"It’s time for action. It is a catastrophe, and it must stop," he added.

Johnson last met with Biden more than a month ago, on Jan. 17, but in the weeks since then, Johnson and congressional Democrats have failed to strike a deal on critical military aid for Ukraine or hammer out the details of the budget agreement they reached last month to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. Johnson, Schumer and McConnell attended Tuesday's meeting with Biden along with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Vice President Kamala Harris.

On funding the government, Johnson expressed optimism a shutdown can be avoided: “We believe we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown."

Once again, lawmakers are racing to prevent another catastrophe of their own making. Bipartisan negotiators had been expected to announce their first tranche of appropriations bills this week to help stave off a partial shutdown. But by Tuesday, the bills still had not been posted and shared with colleagues for their review.

If Congress cannot figure out a path forward on funding this week, the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, as well as other programs, will all shut down at 12:01 a.m. ET Saturday. Funding for the rest of the government, including the Defense, State, Homeland Security and Justice departments, expires a week later, at 12:01 a.m. March 9.

Even a partial shutdown beginning this weekend would result in furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers and halt pay for those at affected departments who still have to report to work. It would also jeopardize food aid programs for women and children, halt loans to American farmers and freeze hiring and training of air traffic controllers at a time when the country faces a critical shortage. Under a recently passed law, federal workers would receive back pay after a shutdown ends.

And at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a shutdown would close VA benefit regional offices and the GI Bill hotline, stop career counseling or transition assistance programs for veterans, halt public affairs and outreach to veterans and freeze maintenance of the grounds at VA cemeteries, the VA said. Health care and benefits provided by the VA would not be affected, however, and burials at national cemeteries would continue, the department said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough was briefed Monday about agencywide planning for a shutdown. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget began initial outreach to senior leaders at federal agencies about a potential shutdown on Friday, an OMB official said.

Given the fast-approaching deadline, a stopgap funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, might be needed to avoid a shutdown.

"I think we're heading toward a CR for some uncertain duration, but that's about all I can tell you," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former GOP whip who is a close adviser to McConnell.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who represents thousands of federal workers who would be affected, said, “I hope they do a CR that will be short-term and then we get these approps bills done.”

Part of the delay so far stems from House conservatives’ demand that Johnson include policy riders to block Biden administration initiatives about spending related to climate, diversity and equity initiatives, student loans, gun policies, transgender care and abortion-related travel. Those riders, however, would be promptly rejected by the Democratic-led Senate — a fact acknowledged by McConnell.

“Shutting down the government is harmful to the country, and it never produces positive outcomes for either policy or politics,” McConnell said in a floor speech Monday. “We have the means and just enough time this week to avoid a shutdown and to make serious headway on annual appropriations, but as always the task at hand requires that everyone rows in the same direction toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.”

Returning to Washington on Monday, Schumer warned that Congress has “little time to act."

The funding showdown is holding up other congressional business. The House is unlikely to send over articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the Senate until after the government funding process is complete, three sources said.

A final decision has not been made about when exactly to send over the articles, triggering a Senate trial, one of the sources said. But Johnson wants to get past the dual funding deadlines before bogging down the Senate with impeachment.