Facing a Billion-Dollar Shutdown, Congress Can’t Even Agree How to Procrastinate

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Welcome to Washington, currently home to an octogenarian staring contest that will determine whether the military will stand ready, inspectors will check the food heading to holiday tables and families shuffle through busy airports with TSA screeners working with pay—or not.

That’s right. Yet another looming government shutdown has arrived. This time around, Friday is the date with the giant red Sharpie circle on it, when 12 appropriations bills are due to expire. But the real deadline on Capitol Hill, to hear folks like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer tell it, is actually today, when lawmakers should take up a stopgap spending measure. If they don’t, the Senate on the other side of the Capitol can be derailed by a single lawmaker who objects to fast-tracking the package. And, if history is any guide, there’s always one peacock in the cloakroom ready to take center stage during such a make-or-break moment.

Congress has every ability to avoid this self-made problem. But seasoned staffers on the Hill know better, and have started letting their weekend dinner dates know they might need to reschedule.

Washington has been running on borrowed time since the current fiscal year began on Oct. 1. With hours to spare then, Congress passed a bipartisan spending plan to avert a shutdown—for all of nine weeks. The deal gave Democrats some breathing room to advance their infrastructure agenda, but that grace period is up and it’s not clear either side is as amenable to kick the can down the road again.

In fact, some of the most powerful voices in the talks underway today are saying it’s time to do a big deal that carries them through the rest of the fiscal year that ends in September. That’s a massive lift, and many, many moving parts have parochial champions who seem poised to derail the process over any number of sticking points and others who seem ready to make a routine spending bill a touchstone in the ongoing culture wars. The latest conservative cause celebre is to weaponize the package and use it to repeal President Joe Biden’s mandate that feds and businesses with more than 100 people on payroll get jabbed. Some conservatives are also trying to use the moment to rebuke Biden’s demand that the private sector heed public-health guidance ahead of tomorrow’s expected announcement of testing requirements of Americans traveling back home.

Meanwhile, Democrats, who have the majority in both the House and Senate but still need the backing of at least 10 Senate Republicans, are chasing increases to programs to help affordable housing and added money for public health. They also have an upcoming window to allocate billions through an unrelated social spending bill that is teed up, so they’re not trying too many novel programs in this draft. But they are trying to ditch the Hyde Amendment, a policy rider that has been around in varying strengths that bans federal dollars to pay for abortions—a major shift if Democrats can crowbar from the package a provision that dates to almost right after Roe v. Wade.

Republicans initially said they wouldn’t even sit down to talk about the appropriations bills until Democrats met a list of their demands, including restoring money for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. But they seem to have retreated, and are now in conversations with Democrats. Now that they’ve blinked, it still doesn’t look like there’s going to be much legitimate compromise in the broader caucus.

Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the point on talks, says he would like some breathing room until February or March, but he has also floated the idea that Congress just keep spending at the current levels and re-open the negotiations ahead of the next spending deadline, which would be mere weeks before next year’s midterm elections. Meanwhile, others in the GOP are flirting with refusing anything but an extension of the status quo, which would stick Biden with a Trump-scale budget for the first 20 months of his term.

A way out is still possible, but the quotidien and inherently bipartisan business of keeping the government’s lights on doesn’t exactly incentivize lawmakers who have recognized they can be sensations with outrageous language or face political threats for finding compromise across the aisle. Just ask the 13 Republicans who supported a bipartisan infrastructure plan and were duly promised primary challengers by Trump.

Democrats and Republicans alike have constituents who stand to face major losses if they cannot get this across the finish line by Friday. The National Flood Insurance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—the money states use to administer their welfare programs—both end at midnight on Friday. A proposed 2.7% pay increase for those serving in uniform would have to be covered elsewhere in the Pentagon’s budget, which would result in either a potentially catastrophic $2 billion budget burden or reneging on promises made to those in uniform. And the White House is already flagging for lawmakers language in the current spending package that, if simply carried over until the end of the fiscal year, would have deeply adverse effects, including scrapping 114 new military construction projects that have already been approved.

This was supposed to be the easiest of three big lifts Democrats had hoped to get across the finish line before leaving town. The others are an unrelated Dec. 15 expectation that the federal credit card hits its max and a stand-alone social spending bill that is still being tinkered with by Democrats who will have to pass it without a single vote to spare.

No one in this town wants to go through the holidays—again—during a government shutdown as was the case when then-President Donald Trump refused to sign a stopgap spending bill over his border wall and closed the government for a record 35 days over the holiday break of 2018 and into 2019. Congress’ nonpartisan think tank estimated that closure delivered an $11 billion hit to the economy. Given the current gnashing on the Hill, it’s good odds seasoned lawmakers like Shelby and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patrick Leahy, can find a way out. But that is built on the assumption Republicans don’t bow, however briefly, to the Biden-foiling corner of their party.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com