Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul could each shut down the government on Friday

Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul could each shut down the government on Friday


Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul could each shut down the government on Friday

Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul could each shut down the government on Friday

A brief shutdown of the US government appeared more likely on Thursday as two notoriously headache-inducing senators from opposite sides of the political aisle threatened to hold up a stopgap spending deal.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is insisting that Congress add billions of dollars to its last-minute, short-term government funding bill to send another round of $1,200 stimulus checks to American taxpayers whose economy has been reeling during the coronavirus pandemic.

And Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is using Friday’s midnight deadline to keep the government running as leverage to oppose an annual military spending measure worth $740bn over language that would limit a president’s unilateral power to draw down US troops in Afghanistan and Germany.

Reauthorizations for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have passed on a bipartisan basis for 59 years running.

Every year by 30 September, Congress must pass a sweeping appropriations bill worth more than $1trn to fund everything the US federal does: immigration documentation work at the Department of Homeland Security, National Parks System maintenance, paying out contracts for interstate highway repairs, cutting paychecks for custodial staff at government office buildings, and thousands upon thousands of other expenses.

Before the 2020 election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had agreed to punt on negotiations for a fiscal year 2021 deal until 11 December, this Friday, by signing a so-called continuing resolution (“CR,” in D.C. shorthand) that keeps the government funded at the same level as the previous year’s agreement.

Lawmakers had planned to give themselves another week to negotiate a new deal for FY21 by passing a one-week CR with a new expiration date of next Friday, 18 December.

That new CR passed the House earlier this week on a bipartisan 343-67 vote.

But the peculiarities of the Senate’s parliamentary rules are such that either of Mr Sanders or Mr Paul could single-handedly delay a vote on the measure in the Senate until this Saturday morning at the earliest — by which time the government’s funding will have lapsed without a new deal in place.

Mr Sanders’ plan to send another round of direct payments to stimulate the economy and provide a financial parachute for struggling Americans — a programme that cost the US Treasury more than $200bn in March — has not featured in the most recent bipartisan negotiations for a new Covid relief package.

That is a dereliction of duty, the way Mr Sanders, the progressive icon, sees things.

“To get out of Washington, to turn our backs on the suffering of so many of our people would be immoral, would be unconscionable, and cannot be allowed to happen,” the Vermont senator said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday.

Mr Sanders and a handful of other Senate Democrats have panned the framework of the roughly $900bn deal struck by Senate moderates from both parties for not going “anywhere near far enough.”

Mr Paul’s bid to hold the US government hostage to upend the NDAA is slightly trickier legislative business, although it would have the same effect of keeping the government shut down if he carries his threat to fruition.

The libertarian-aligned Republican has long opposed the US military’s broad reach overseas, especially in the Middle East.

That’s a goal he shares — at least in theory — with outgoing President Donald Trump, who has sought to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq during his administration.

The 2020 version of the defence bill includes a provision that would bar a president from precipitously pulling US troops out of certain military zone, namely Germany and Afghanistan, without congressional permission.

“This bill creates 535 commanders in chief,” Mr Paul chided his colleagues who support the measure, referring to the combined number of lawmakers in the US House and Senate.

Mr Paul said it did not square that Congress had given president’s nearly unlimited power to unilaterally initiate military strikes and conflicts, but that it was now seeking to curb a president’s ability to unilaterally end such conflicts.

“They really don’t care about their theory of an all powerful commander in chief, they care more about perpetuating the Afghan war,” Mr Paul alleged.

The senator’s office could not immediately be reached for comment on what specific concessions he is demanding from Senate leaders that would get him back down from his threats to shut down the government.

Initially, Washington lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and other stakeholders had hoped to close up shop for the holiday season by this Friday. But with the NDAA still outstanding and lawmakers hoping to bolt on another roughly $1trn in Covid relief spending to the eventual FY21 appropriations package (already projected to be worth an estimated $1.4trn), Ms Pelosi has warned that negotiations could drag on past even next Friday.

The NDAA will eventually pass and become law even though Mr Trump objects to language that would force military bases named for Confederate generals to be rechristened. It has veto-proof support in both chambers.

The fate of government appropriations and another Covid relief deal are less clear.

Democrats and Republicans still appear miles apart from an agreement on Covid. If that division persists, they may resort to passing the final government appropriations bill on its own by next Friday, and then hammering out a new Covid relief bill as a supplemental add-on.

The absolute deadline to pass Covid relief is 26 December, when a coronavirus-inspired federal unemployment benefit programme is set to expire.

Ms Pelosi has indicated this week that congressional leaders could be working through Christmas to package together more Covid relief.

“People do want to get home for the holidays, such as that is, but what’s more important is that we get the job done for the American people,” the speaker said at her weekly news conference on Thursday.

“We’ve been here after Christmas, you know. We were here five years ago,” she said, reminding the press corps of budget talks that dragged congressional work in 2015 to the brink of New Years Day.

“It has to be done before year’s end,” Ms Pelosi said of a Covid deal.


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