U.S. Congress seeks to ward off government shutdown as Biden agenda at risk

The U.S. Capitol seen through a skylight window at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.
REUTERS/Tom Brenner

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON – Democratic divisions were imperiling President Joe Biden’s agenda to invest in infrastructure, expand social services and address climate change as the U.S. Congress simultaneously faced a Thursday deadline to avert a government shutdown.

Congress was poised to approve new government funding through Dec. 3 while moderate and progressive Democrats battle over spending trillions of dollars to finance expanded family leave, medical care for the elderly and improved supports for children.

The Democratic-controlled Senate and House of Representatives were expected to pass the temporary funding bill by midnight on Thursday, avoiding a partial government shutdown like the one in late 2018 and early 2019 that lasted 35 days.

Meanwhile, the House was scheduled to vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure investment bill that passed the Senate last month in a bipartisan vote. Since then, House Republicans have been backing away from the bill in a move to deny Biden the victory.

It was unclear, however, if that vote would actually occur. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced a revolt from an influential group of progressive Democrats who warned she must hold it back until a larger, $3.5 trillion domestic investment bill is nailed down.

Moderates were pushing for a smaller package, and negotiations on it could stretch for weeks or longer.

Besides keeping government operations running, the stop-gap spending bill would provide aid for communities hard-hit by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. Money to help Afghan refugees is included too.

Yet another battle was percolating in Congress.

Democrats and Republicans continued brawling over giving the Treasury Department additional borrowing authority, beyond the current statutory limit of $28.4 trillion. A historic debt default could occur around Oct. 18, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has estimated, if Congress fails to act.

Republicans want no part of the debt limit increase, saying it is Democrats’ problem since they control Congress and the White House.

The House late on Wednesday approved a bill suspending the debt limit through December 2022. It is expected to be blocked by Senate Republicans, possibly on Thursday.

Tempers in the Capitol flared on Wednesday.

House Democrats urged moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to say publicly what they want, having rejected the size of Biden’s $3.5 trillion social investment bill.

“They need to come up with their counteroffer and then we sit down and negotiate from there,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

The two so far have refused to lay out the size and scope of what they might support.

Manchin issued a statement late on Wednesday saying, “Spending trillions more on new and expanded government programs, when we can’t even pay for the essential social programs like Social Security and Medicare, is the definition of fiscal insanity.”

He also told reporters on Wednesday that negotiating the large “social infrastructure” bill could take weeks or more to complete, further complicating Democrats’ hopes of passing the infrastructure bill that would pay for road and bridge building and other projects that the business community supports.

The looming debt crisis is rattling Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, according to an Ipsos national opinion poll conducted for Reuters on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It showed that 65% of adults, including eight in 10 Democrats and five in 10 Republicans, are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that Congress will fail to reach a debt deal in time.

The poll also found that 30% think congressional Republicans deserve the most blame if there is a government shutdown, while 21% would blame Democrats in Congress and 16% would blame Biden.

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