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January 05, 2024

Border dispute could force partial government shutdown

Credit: The Washington Post

Far-right Republicans in the House are threatening to force a partial government shutdown unless Congress enacts strict new changes to immigration law, imperiling crucial government services — and U.S. aid to Ukraine — over a long-fraught issue that could be critical in this year’s elections.

Dozens of GOP lawmakers toured a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Tex., on Wednesday to push House-passed legislation that would significantly limit migrants’ ability to claim asylum, restart construction of a border wall and cut into President Biden’s power to grant humanitarian parole to migrants. Members of the Republican conference’s most conservative flank demanded that legislation become law in exchange for their votes to approve federal spending for the rest of the 2024 fiscal year, though the GOP-led House already rejected such a trade in September.

“H. R. 2 needs to be the unflinching House policy because all of it’s important to securing the border,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), chair of the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, told The Washington Post. “The president and Senate majority leader have no interest in securing the border, and so therefore, we as a House majority should say, ‘We’re not going to fund a government that is going to continue to facilitate this border invasion.’”

Federal agents recorded nearly 250,000 illegal crossings along the southern border in December, the highest total ever in one month, according to preliminary Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Post.

That crisis is complicating efforts in Washington to head off a partial shutdown. Funding for roughly 20 percent of the federal government — including for essential programs such as some veterans assistance and food and drug safety services — expires on Jan. 19, and money for the rest of the government runs out shortly after that, on Feb. 2. But lawmakers have not yet agreed on how to pass full-year spending bills or more temporary funding. Without action by the first deadline, a partial government shutdown would begin. Congress returns next week with little time to work out the details.

The White House’s top budget official told reporters Friday that the GOP tactic significantly increased the risk of a shutdown.

“I wouldn’t say pessimistic, but I’m not optimistic [about the odds to avert a shutdown],” Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “Earlier this week, their border trip left me with more concerns about where they’re headed.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) did not formally back the demands to link immigration restrictions with federal spending, but with a narrow GOP majority in a bitterly divided chamber, he relies on the Freedom Caucus, a group that has been a persistent thorn in the side of Republican leadership, to maintain power. He called that immigration bill, H.R. 2, a “necessary ingredient” to any immigration policy.

“Let me tell you what our top two priorities are right now,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday. “In summary, we want to get the border closed and secured first, and we want to make sure that we reduce nondefense discretionary spending.”

Republican lawmakers and political operatives say immigration issues work to their advantage, and hope to capitalize on the porous border to maintain control of their narrow House majority, retake the Senate and propel former president Donald Trump back to the White House.

“I would prefer the Senate Democrats found enlightenment and said, ‘H.R. 2 is what we want to do.’ Turns out I live in the real world and that’s not going to happen,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said. “But if we can get a substantial win on the border, I think it is one of those rare cases where it actually really helps the country and helps us politically.”

That strategy has at least some support in the Senate, where Democrats control the chamber by a single vote, requiring help from Republicans to get around potential filibusters to pass new spending legislation.

“I think that we have a real fiscal crisis in our country, but I think the most significant crisis we have is what is going on at the southern border,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a regular interlocutor between hard-right lawmakers in the House and more pragmatic Senate Republicans, told The Post on Friday. “And I encourage my Republican friends in the House to use all the negotiating leverage they can to solve this problem politically.

A bipartisan group in the Senate — Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) — has been negotiating border legislation for weeks in connection with a separate spending bill that would devote more than $100 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine and Israel and to the U.S.-Mexico border, among other priorities. That bill would include $14 billion in border security provisions. Senate Republicans have demanded immigration policy changes, as well as the security funding, before they’d vote to approve additional money for Ukraine.

Ukraine funding’s fate hangs on thorny immigration issue in Senate

But House Republicans are far more skeptical of Kyiv than their Senate counterparts, and demands to link immigration policy to ongoing government funding, instead of to the Ukraine aid, could mean the House won’t pass any assistance for the war in Ukraine.

This round of budgetary negotiations wasn’t supposed to be so complicated. In the spring, President Biden struck a deal with then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to suspend the nation’s debt limit in exchange for limiting discretionary spending to $1.59 trillion in 2024, with 1 percent growth in 2025. Because that represented a cut when taking inflation into account, Biden and McCarthy agreed to spend another $69 billion each year in a side deal, with some of that offset by repurposing existing funds.

Inside the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal

But House Republicans, led by members of the Freedom Caucus, were unsatisfied with that arrangement. A few months later, they ousted McCarthy from the speakership when he turned to Democratic votes in September to maintain those spending levels and avert a government shutdown. In a sign of stark internal divisions, though, the GOP-led House also rejected a stopgap funding measure with steep budget cuts that included the sweeping border changes the far right now seeks. (McCarthy resigned from Congress at the end of 2023.)

After taking over as speaker, Johnson in November also needed support from Democrats to pass another stopgap funding bill, which staggered expiration dates between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2.

The $69 billion side deal that McCarthy struck has been a sticking point through the fall and winter. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), then chair of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters just after Thanksgiving that his group would support the $1.59 trillion spending total that the debt ceiling law set — even though that was the amount that led some members to boot McCarthy from the speakership and drive the government to the verge of a shutdown — but only if it didn’t include the side agreements.

By early December, Johnson echoed the sentiment, declaring that the additional funding was not codified in law, but merely a handshake deal between his predecessor and Biden.

“This budget agreement was not a handshake agreement,” Young, from the White House OMB, said Friday. “It was a vote of Congress. It is not optional. They have to keep their word.”

“That group has got sway over Johnson. They’ve toppled McCarthy. They’re the reason why nothing’s got done in the last 12 months,” Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Post.

Good, the Freedom Caucus’s new leader, said he has told Johnson that the speaker would “be a hero to the American people” if he threatened a government shutdown over border security.

“I think that’s a fight the American people will reward Speaker Johnson for waging,” Good said.

Marianna Sotomayor and Nick Miroff contributed to this report