How Congress avoided a government shutdown at the 11th hour

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy knew on Friday night that if he wanted to stop the government from shutting down, he might have to do something he had avoided for months under pressure from far-right Republicans.

He was going to have to rely on Democrats.

Eight minutes before midnight — and with just a little more than 24 hours to figure out a way to keep funding the government — the speaker quietly filed a new bill.

At a House GOP meeting in the morning, he made the shocking announcement that he would largely embrace bipartisan legislation in the Democratic-led Senate to keep the government open through Nov. 17, according to a source close to McCarthy.

But there was one catch: He would cut out aid for Ukraine while leaving disaster relief funding in. Lacking enough Republican votes, he made a wager that Democrats would rescue the bill.

McCarthy’s move was an act of defiance against the hard-liners who strenuously opposed a short-term bill. Some, like Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., even threatened to force a vote to overthrow him if he passed one with Democratic votes.

But the speaker’s decision set in motion a rapid series of events that led to the House passing a slightly revised bill to keep the government funded through Nov. 17 on a broad bipartisan vote, and the Senate swallowing it just in time to keep the lights on.

“If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it,” McCarthy told reporters moments after the House passed the bill. “There has to be an adult in the room.”

Kevin McCarthy.  (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

The gamble paid off — after some angst and political machinations — when 209 Democrats joined 126 Republicans to pass the bill. Just one Democrat (Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois) voted no. And Democrats were quick to claim victory.

“Time and time and time again, House Democrats have had to come to the rescue and push back against the extremists,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, N.Y., told reporters. “When we read the four corners of the agreement it was clear to us that this spending bill was a complete and total victory for the American people and a total defeat for the extreme MAGA Republicans.”

In the meantime, there were a couple of key moments that paved the way for the dramatic turnaround that prevented a shutdown that had been seen for weeks as inevitable.

House Democrats come around

Democrats initially blasted the last-minute legislation, saying they were blindsided by McCarthy holding an immediate vote on a 71-page bill they hadn’t read. They didn’t trust him to write a “clean” bill and worried there might be something tucked in there that they wouldn’t like.

Some circulated a one-pager bashing it. Jeffries used his “magic minute” — a House rule that allows the leader of each party to speak on the floor for as long as they want — for 52 minutes to run the clock so Democrats could review the text.

“We asked for 90 minutes to simply read the bill. Think how absurd it is that the Republicans made a big deal of a 72-hour rule before you vote on bills. And they literally dropped this bill, with maybe a few minutes to read it,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., groused after a Democratic meeting. “Completely hypocritical.”

Behind the scenes, some Democrats in the influential New York delegation who weren’t happy with McCarthy’s tactics knew they were trapped. Their state had just been pummeled by storms and a vote against the bill would also be a vote against the flood insurance provisions in it, one aide said.

In the middle of Democrats attempting to buy time to review the legislation, a fire alarm went off, and one of the House office buildings had to be evacuated. There was no fire — just Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who later said he was “embarrassed to admit that I activated the fire alarm, mistakenly thinking it would open the door.”

Across the Capitol, in a closed-door lunch meeting Saturday, Senate Republicans overruled McConnell’s plea to preserve Ukraine funding — a high priority for him — in a temporary funding bill, said two sources with knowledge of the conversations. He had succeeded in making a similar case against a two-week bill offered a day earlier by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. But this time, McConnell decided to accept the House path.

“It looks like there may be a bipartisan agreement coming from the House. So, I’m fairly confident that most of my members, our members, are going to vote against cloture,” McConnell told reporters afterward. “So, under these circumstances, I’m recommending a no vote even though I very much want to avoid a government shutdown.”

McConnell had just withdrawn his support for his own Senate bill, which included Ukraine aid, in order to boost McCarthy’s efforts. House Democrats quickly saw their options dwindle.

“I hear the Senate is not going to be able to pass their [continuing resolution] with Ukraine aid now that the Republicans have pulled their support,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said while Jeffries was buying time. “So at this point, there’s really no leverage.”

The clincher came when House Democrats secured a late concession to alter a provision in the initial GOP-written bill to address Democratic concerns that it would raise pay for lawmakers. Their top appropriator, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., had blasted the provision in a one-page paper criticizing the McCarthy bill — which was subsequently tweaked to revert to the Senate language clarifying that lawmaker pay be kept flat.

Smith said the final bill would be “slightly different” and indicated that with the change, Democrats would be on board.

McCarthy defies the GOP hardliners

The 335-91 House vote was a startling display of what was possible if McCarthy stopped catering to his hard-liners and worked with the House’s moderate majority. Yet moments later, McCarthy downplayed the prospects of continuing that approach when asked about the 21 hard-liners who opposed his initial stopgap bill.

“I believe at the end of the day we’ll get them back on board,” he said, ahead of a high-stakes fight still to come over a full-year government funding bill.

The White House, which took a hands-off approach to the fight, saw the outcome as a “big victory” on funding levels and keeping the government open for now without going back on the budget deal it struck with McCarthy, according to a senior administration official. Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, echoed that view.

“After trying to take our government hostage, MAGA Republicans won nothing,” he said after the 88-9 vote for the bill in the Senate.

But for Republicans, there was another factor: Donald Trump, who days ago had instructed Republicans to “SHUT IT DOWN” if they didn’t get “EVERYTHING” they demanded from Democrats.

Trump, however, told some conservative members privately that ultimately they could whatever they had to do, a source familiar with the conversations said.

Trump campaign spokesman Steve Cheung denied the account, saying the source was “wrong.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy was also facing pressure from members in swing districts who were flirting with partnering with Democrats to force a vote on a temporary funding bill, in what would have been a rare and embarrassing defiance of their speaker. McCarthy’s decision Saturday preempted that and saved his politically vulnerable members from a painful shutdown.

After the bipartisan House bill passed, Gaetz stood at the GOP podium and tried to get presiding Rep. Steve Womack’s attention as he sat in the chair. But the Arkansas Republican ignored Gaetz, slammed down the gavel and adjourned the House until Monday.

Gaetz later told reporters that McCarthy’s speakership was “on some tenuous ground.” His sparring partner, swing-district freshman Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., predicted that Gaetz’s efforts would fail.

“I think Kevin McCarthy has done a phenomenal job as speaker. I think he’s been continually underestimated. And here again, today you saw him lead. And so at the end of the day, if somebody wants to bring up a motion to vacate, that’s their business,” Lawler said. “But it’ll be defeated.”

A last-minute Senate roadblock

The spectacular breakthrough in the House raised optimism for unanimous consent in the Senate to hold a speedy vote to pass the bill. But on Capitol Hill, it’s rarely that simple.

This time, the hold-up was a Democratic senator — Colorado’s Michael Bennet, who was upset about the lack of Ukraine aid. He said he lifted his blockade after securing a bipartisan joint statement from McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other key senators, reaffirming their commitment to passing Ukraine funding in “the coming weeks.”

“We support Ukraine’s efforts to defend its sovereignty against Putin’s brazen aggression, and we join a strong bipartisan majority of our colleagues in this essential work,” they said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said there were “lots of cross-Capitol, bicameral conversations going on” with McCarthy, as well as at the staff level between Republicans ahead of final passage.

“It materialized kind of organically. Everybody’s been trying to figure out different ways of trying to find a path to fund the government and make sure we don’t go into shutdown. It’s evolved. The House had their process. We had hours,” Thune said. “Eventually, this current plan came together.”

Next comes the hard part: Reaching a full-year funding deal. And there’s a chance everyone could be back in the same place in a little over a month, as the stopgap bill did little to resolve the bigger disputes between House Republicans and the Senate.

But Thune says he hopes that isn’t the case.

“Because it’s in everybody’s best interest not to wind up like we did with this,” he said, “where you’re up against a deadline and you haven’t funded government.”

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