Congress Dodges Government Shutdown With Last-Minute, Short-Term Deal

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Tom Emmer, the majority whip, shake hands following passage in the House of a 45-day continuing resolution on September 30, 2023 in Washington, DC. Credit – Nathan Howard—Getty Images

In a dramatic turn of events, the House and Senate on Saturday passed a measure to extend government funding through mid-November, averting an imminent government shutdown just hours before the deadline. The last-minute bipartisan effort seemingly came together in a matter of hours, after months of negotiations across a divided Congress had gone nowhere and much of Washington had assumed an imminent shutdown was all but certain.

Failure to pass a bill by midnight would have resulted in the fourth government shutdown in the last decade, impacting hundreds of thousands of federal workers and government contractors who would have received no pay until a deal was made. But by Saturday afternoon, it became clear that both sides were working towards an agreement to avoid that scenario. Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has faced pushback from the far-right faction of his party, made the surprising move to introduce a clean stopgap bill, knowing that he could only pass it with the support of most of the chamber’s Democrats.

“It’s alright if Republicans and Democrats join together to do what is right,” McCarthy said on Saturday when asked about his GOP colleagues vowing to oust him. “If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it. There has to be an adult in the room.”

The measure, which extended government funding for about 45 days and allocated $16 billion for disaster relief, passed the House in a 335-91 vote. Notably, the bill lacked funding for Ukraine, which many far-right Republicans oppose, and did not include border security provisions that many House Republicans had said were a priority. Lawmakers have vowed to take up both issues separately.

The fast-moving spectacle that unfolded on Capitol Hill on Saturday was nothing short of gripping, with a functioning federal government hanging precariously in the balance. Just hours after the House passed the measure, the Senate followed suit, voting 88 to 9 to send the bill to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it before midnight.

The strategy appeared to be a last-ditch effort by McCarthy to demonstrate that Republicans were making an effort to keep the government open after leadership had failed to pass their own version of a stopgap bill on Friday. But in doing so, it put McCarthy’s political future in jeopardy as he confronts ongoing threats from the far-right wing of his party, who have vowed to remove him from the speakership should he navigate a funding plan with Democratic support. McCarthy decided to roll the dice on his own political survival in order to ensure the uninterrupted operation of federal agencies.

As House Republicans struggle to govern with a razor-thin five-seat majority, the threat to McCarthy’s leadership comes most directly from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and at least four other conservative hardliners. “I’ve said that whether or not Kevin McCarthy faces a motion to vacate is entirely within his control, because all he had to do was comply with the agreement that he made with us in January,” Gaetz said before the House vote. “Putting this bill on the floor and passing it with Democrats would be such an obvious blatant and clear violation of that. We would have to deal with it.”

Before the vote, House Republican leadership expressed a sense of inevitability, asserting that they had exhausted all other options. Dissident conservatives had previously derailed an earlier plan, leaving them with little choice but to pass a bill extending funding at the current $1.6 trillion annual rate through November 17th, which closely aligned with the Senate’s approach except for the omission of an emergency $6 billion in funds for Ukraine.

The decision to scratch the Ukraine aid—at least for now—marks a crucial blow to the White House and President Volodymyr Zelensky, who met with Biden last week and pleaded for new weapons systems, including F-16 fighter jets and longer-range ATACMS missiles. The White House, which did not respond to a request for comment as of press time, had requested $20.6 billion from Congress to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. One House Democrat told TIME on Saturday evening that Senate Democrats would begin moving a supplemental for Ukraine as soon as next week.

Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, the lone House Democrat to vote against the short-term measure, said he did so because the bill didn’t include funding for Ukraine. “Putin is celebrating,” he told CNN. “We got 45 days to fix it.”

House Democratic leadership made clear that Ukraine funding was still among their top priorities, releasing a statement saying that when the House returned, they expected McCarthy “to advance a bill to the House Floor for an up-or-down vote that supports Ukraine, consistent with his commitment to making sure that Vladimir Putin, Russia and authoritarianism are defeated.”

The decision by McCarthy to advance the legislation on Saturday marked a significant shift for the Speaker, who had spent months attempting to placate a dissident faction within his party. Despite offering spending bills with substantial cuts and additional restrictions on migrants, he was unable to draw the needed votes from within his caucus. McCarthy expressed his frustration earlier Saturday, stating, “I have tried for eight months…I couldn’t get 218 Republicans.”

Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican and the majority leader, said Saturday that his party would restart the appropriations process on Monday and continue to push for border security restrictions and spending cuts until the Nov. 17 deadline. “Believe me, this is not the end. This is the beginning of our continued fight to secure our border, to get government spending under control, and to get our economy back on track,” he said.

The drama on Saturday also spilled over to the Democratic side when Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York triggered a fire alarm in one of the Capitol office buildings, prompting a building-wide evacuation, at a point when House GOP leadership was scrambling to pass the bill and Democrats were complaining they needed more time to understand what was in it. Bowman told reporters hours later that it was a mistake and that he was rushing to get votes, but Republican leadership is calling for an ethics investigation into the matter—alleging that it was done in an attempt to delay the vote. Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, also of New York, drafted a resolution to have Bowman expelled from Congress over the incident.

The passage of the legislation on Saturday followed a nerve-wracking week in Washington, as federal agencies prepared for a government shutdown that many assumed was likely to happen. Essential workers, including the armed forces, air traffic controllers, and airport security personnel, faced the grim prospect of continuing to work without pay until the standoff was resolved.

But while Congress avoided an immediate shutdown, they only pushed their problems off until mid-November, when the latest legislation expires. Congress has yet to make progress on the 12 annual appropriations bills that keep the lights on at several federal agencies, raising the possibility that the shutdown will still happen, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Write to Nik Popli at

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