WASHINGTON - As the Senate marches ahead with a bipartisan approach to prevent a government shutdown, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is back to square one - asking his hard-right Republicans to do what they have said they would never do: approve their own temporary House measure to keep the government open.
The Republican speaker laid out his strategy Wednesday behind closed doors, urging his unruly Republican majority to work together. He set up a test vote Friday, one day before Saturday's shutdown deadline, on a far-right bill. It would slash federal spending by 8% from many agencies and toughen border security but has been rejected by President Joe Biden, Democrats and his own right-flank Republicans.
"I want to solve the problem," McCarthy told reporters afterward at the Capitol.
But pressed on how he would pass a partisan Republican spending plan that even his own right flank doesn't want, McCarthy had few answers. He rejected outright the Senate's bipartisan bill, which would fund the government to Nov. 17, adding $6 billion for Ukraine and $6 billion for U.S. disaster relief while talks continue. Instead, he insisted, as he often does, that he would never quit trying.
Congress is at a crossroads days before a disruptive federal shutdown that would halt paychecks for millions of federal workers and the military, close down many federal offices and leave Americans who rely on the government in ways large and small in the lurch.
President Joe Biden in California at a meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said Wednesday he didn't think a federal shutdown was inevitable.
"I don't think anything is inevitable when it comes to politics," Biden said.
But when asked what could be done to avoid it, the president said: "If I knew that I would have done it already."
As the Senate pushes ahead in bipartisan fashion, McCarthy is demanding that Biden meet to discuss border security measures. But the beleaguered speaker has little leverage left with the White House without the power of his House majority behind him and after he walked away from the debt deal he and Biden reached earlier this year that is now law.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer opened the chamber warning of the right-wing extremes that "seem to exult in shutting down government."
Schumer said: "A reckless shutdown will serve no purpose."
The Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was in rare agreement with the Democratic leader, urging his House colleagues to consider the Senate's stopgap approach that keeps funding at current levels, along with bolstered money for Ukraine and U.S. disaster relief, and move off the shutdown strategy.
"We can take the standard approach and fund the government for six weeks at the current rate of operations or we can shut the government down in exchange for zero meaningful progress on policy," McConnell said.
McConnell said he, too, would like to do something about the "Democrats' reckless spending" and boost border security. But "these important discussions cannot progress" if the functions of government "end up being taken hostage."
With the Senate expected to spend the rest of this week working to pass its bill over the objections of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others on the right flank who want to halt aid to Ukraine and push for steeper spending cuts, all action in Congress is crushing toward a last-minute deadline.
The federal government would begin to shut down if funding is not secured by Sunday, Oct. 1, which is the start of the new fiscal year.
While the White House has said it's up to McCarthy and the House Republicans to "fix" the problem they have created, Biden's chief rival in the 2024 election, Donald Trump, is urging the right flank to fight for steep spending cuts. If Republicans don't get what they want, the former president says, they should "shut it down."
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