Congress Avoids Government Shutdown By Passing Spending Bill

Congress on Thursday passed a spending bill to keep the government open through the beginning of December in hopes of averting a shutdown mere hours before federal funding ran out.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law later on Thursday.

Senators from both parties agreed to keep federal funding levels unchanged until Dec. 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Wednesday night, after days of budgeting fights between the two parties.

The bill also included funds for resettling Afghan refugees and for hurricane relief. Republicans’ attempts to amend the funding bill — including to limit Afghan refugees’ access to benefits and to prohibit the use of federal funds to enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates — all failed. Several Republicans, such as Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, were eager to get the emergency funding after Hurricane Ida battered their states. 

The House passed the bill later on Thursday with Republican support.

Democrats — who did not want to preside over a government shutdown while in full control of government — can breathe a sigh of relief, but they’re not in the clear yet. They still have a looming deadline: the debt ceiling.

The House passed a funding bill last week along party lines that also included an increase to the debt limit. But Senate Republicans rejected the bill this week, refusing to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been adamant since the summer that Democrats must raise the debt ceiling on their own, without Republican votes.

The debt ceiling has been raised more than 90 times in U.S. history, including three times under the Trump administration. Republicans have no issue with raising the limit — they actually want to see it done — but they’re protesting the vote to make a point about government spending.

Of course, Republicans’ own bills added trillions of dollars to the deficit; the debt limit would have needed to be raised regardless of Democrats’ policies. Still, any attempt by Democrats to tie government spending and the debt limit together has been met with obstruction.

The path forward is unclear for Democrats. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned Tuesday that the nation would hit its debt ceiling by Oct. 18, at which point her department would no longer be able to stave off defaulting on the nation’s debt holdings. The risks associated with missing that deadline are severe: It’s likely to lead to economic turmoil and cause serious delays in crucial programs like social security and veterans benefits. 

Democrats can either push toward the Oct. 18 deadline and hope Republicans blink, or they can push an increase on partisan grounds through the budget reconciliation process.

But the latter would be tricky and potentially take weeks, Democratic lawmakers have already warned. They haven’t made any progress negotiating their own reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act — meant to address some of Biden’s biggest agenda items.

If anything, that proposal looked more doomed than not by the end of this week.

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