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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Republican demands and divisions drive impasse toward a shutdown

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Feb. 14, 2024. The spending stalemate that has brought the government to the brink of a shutdown is being fueled by GOP demands to add conservative spending mandates opposed by President Biden and Democrats. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Catie Edmondson

The spending showdown that has brought the government to the brink of a partial shutdown this week is being fueled by Republicans in Congress, who, after failing in their efforts to slash federal funding, are still insisting on right-wing policy dictates.

House Republicans loaded up their spending bills with hundreds of partisan policy mandates, a vast majority of which had no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate or being signed by President Joe Biden. They include measures to target various pieces of Biden’s agenda, such as one to restrict access to abortion medication and another to restrict the Department of Veterans Affairs from flagging veterans deemed mentally incompetent in a federal background check needed to buy a gun.

With just four days remaining before funding lapses for roughly one-quarter of the government, some of those issues are emerging as major sticking points in negotiations to reach a deal to keep the money flowing. Republicans also are still seeking to cut federal programs aimed at providing nutrition assistance for low-income families as well as for women and infants.

Complicating the picture for Speaker Mike Johnson, who met at the White House on Tuesday with Biden and the other top congressional leaders, Republicans themselves have been divided over what to push for in spending talks. Ultraconservative lawmakers who rarely support spending legislation have been the loudest voices in favor of cuts and hard-line policy provisions, but more mainstream and politically endangered Republicans have refused to back them.

In one case last fall, the more moderate lawmakers helped to sink a spending bill that prevented money from being spent to enforce a District of Columbia law that protects employees from being discriminated against for seeking contraception or abortion services.

Republicans have also sought to reverse a new rule by the Food and Drug Administration allowing mifepristone — the first pill used in a two-drug medication abortion regimen — to be distributed through the mail and at retail locations. And they want to ban the VA from flagging that a veteran has been deemed mentally incompetent in a federal gun background check without a court order.

“These hard-right chaos agents in the House do not represent a majority of Republicans in the country,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said Tuesday before the White House meeting. “They do not represent a majority of Republicans in the Senate. They do not even represent a majority of Republicans in the House. Yet, they are trying to bully everyone else into submission to get what they want.”

If Congress does not approve a fresh tranche of funding before Friday at midnight, funding for military construction, agriculture, transportation and housing programs will lapse. Funding for all other agencies, including the Pentagon, is set to expire at midnight on March 8.

Driving the impasse are the same dynamics that have persisted since this Congress began a year ago. Hard-right Republicans have tried to use their party’s razor-thin majority in the House as leverage to wring spending cuts and conservative policy conditions on how federal money can be spent from Biden and Democrats in the Senate. And the Republican speaker — first Kevin McCarthy and now Johnson — has worked to appease that restive group, agreeing to tailor the spending bills to its demands, even though many of its members have rarely, if ever, supported appropriations bills during their time in Congress.

The result has been that congressional leaders have three times had to turn to Democrats to help them fund the government with short-term spending bills.

Right-wing Republicans have grown increasingly unhappy as they have watched government funding keep flowing without cuts or policy changes, and they are ratcheting up pressure on Johnson to secure some kind of conservative victory in the current spending negotiations.

Johnson told Republicans on Friday during a conference call that they should not expect the inclusion of many of their major policy priorities, though he said he expected to secure a number of more minor victories.

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