The Capitol Building in Washington.
Christian Heeb/laif/Redux

How likely is a government shutdown this week?

Much of the political world has understandably been focused on the very competitive presidential race and this week’s highly anticipated debate. But on Capitol Hill, a different concern is drawing attention: the deadline to prevent another government shutdown is just a few days away.

Current funding for federal operations expires at the end of the fiscal year, which comes later this week, at midnight on Sept. 30. Unless there’s a spending agreement to keep the lights on, the government will shut down this weekend.

How likely is that to happen? The odds actually went up a little yesterday when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) brought a spending bill to the floor, knowing full well that the Democratic minority would balk. What he didn’t realize is that there’d be bipartisan opposition to his approach: McConnell’s bill failed on a 45-55 vote, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats to reject the measure, and in the process, pushing Congress just a little closer to a shutdown.

The sticking point, oddly enough, isn’t some heated disagreement over a culture-war dispute or money for “Obamacare,” but rather, aid for Flint, Michigan. Democrats have said they won’t support any package unless it includes Flint aid, while Republicans have pushed to deal with Flint separately, with resources that could be added to a water-projects spending bill. (Note, McConnell’s bill included money for flood relief in Louisiana and Texas, but no money for Flint.)

For those hoping to avoid a shutdown, last night brought some good news. The Washington Post reported on a deal in the House:
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck a deal late Tuesday to deliver federal aid to address the water crisis in Flint, Mich., potentially removing a major flashpoint in negotiations to keep the government fully operating past Friday.

Under the deal, the House will vote Wednesday on an amendment to a pending water projects bill that would authorize up to $170 million in infrastructure funds for communities like Flint whose water systems are blighted by “chemical, physical, or biological” contaminants.
Senators have not yet scrutinized the deal, but the Post quoted a senior aide who said chamber leaders are “optimistic” that the House agreement will prevent a shutdown.

In case it’s not obvious, Republicans have a pretty compelling motivation for avoiding a shutdown: Election Day is just 41 days away, and GOP officials not only want to keep their majorities in the House and Senate, they hope to control the entire federal government in January. If the Republican majorities shut down the government – even if it’s a partial shutdown – so close to the elections, they risk a voter backlash.

Democrats know this, and they hope to use this as leverage to help the people of Flint.

The details of the Ryan/Pelosi agreement aren’t yet publicly available, but as I understand it, their deal would not include Flint money in the spending bill that keeps the government open, but the House leaders have instead agreed to expedite action on the water-projects bill, with a vote this week, possibly as early as today.

For more on the overall controversy, Rachel had a report last week that’s worth your time if you missed it.

Postscript: The stopgap spending package, known as a continuing resolution (or CR), includes money for the federal response to the Zika virus.

Congress and Government Shutdowns

How likely is a government shutdown this week?