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Welcome to shutdown week. House Republicans slow-walk a deal

The Senate is back today from the Presidents Day recess with the House returning Wednesday.

Also welcome back to another “Looming Government Shutdown” week because, yes, nearly five months into FY 2024, Congress still hasn’t approved any of the annual spending bills. A partial government shutdown will occur at midnight Friday if lawmakers don’t act, with a full government shutdown possible on March 8. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union is March 7.

Biden has invited the “Big Four” leaders — Speaker Mike Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries — to the White House on Tuesday morning to discuss this latest crisis and to lobby Johnson to pass the foreign aid package.

This impasse over government funding is all about House Republicans. Johnson is under pressure from House GOP hardliners who want to string out this fight as long as possible in order to trigger automatic spending cuts. So Johnson is holding out on a number of policy riders.

All the other players in these bicameral discussions — Senate Democrats and Republicans, House Democrats and the White House — have pushed for bipartisan deals. But House Republicans won’t go along once again.

Johnson, quite frankly, has been hesitant to lead on any issue at all. With the example of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster in mind, Johnson won’t overrule the Freedom Caucus.

As we’ll get into in a moment, the disagreements, while moderately significant from a policy perspective, don’t feel like they could lead to a shutdown. But hardline conservatives don’t operate under the typical incentive structures that govern national politics.

And some Republicans suspect Johnson is toying with a shutdown to give himself more space to cut a deal with Democrats. This may be giving him too much credit, however.

Shutdown fears rise: With both sides saying progress was being made last week, congressional leaders had hoped to release text for the first four spending bills by Sunday night. These cover the Agriculture, Energy and Water, MilCon-Va and Transportation-HUD bills, the first tranche of annual appropriations under the “laddered” continuing resolution Johnson demanded last year.

But House GOP conservatives have refused to concede on anything. When Johnson said during a Friday night conference call with members that he wanted to do the first group of bills this week on the floor — meaning he would need Democratic help to pass them under suspension — there was strong pushback from Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and other hardliners.

During that call, Johnson also said he didn’t want a shutdown but conceded that it may happen. Johnson also acknowledged that Republicans didn’t score any major policy victories in the funding bills either.

As the weekend progressed, the bicameral talks began to stall out. And by Sunday afternoon, as we first reported, it became clear that negotiators wouldn’t be able to release spending bills due to the GOP opposition.

The policy fights: There’s a dispute over hundreds of millions of dollars in WIC funding — Women, Infants and Children — under the Agriculture Department. The department has warned of a possible $1 billion shortfall in the program unless more money is approved, which could put millions of program participants at risk. Conservatives want to keep this funding flat.

Another disagreement involves a Senate provision barring the VA from sending a veteran’s name to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System — used for gun purchases — when a fiduciary is appointed to oversee that person’s benefits.

There’s also hundreds of millions in spending earmarks that are another problem area, according to Democratic and GOP aides.

Lastly, GOP hardliners are already suggesting that Republicans force Biden to add more money for border security. This comes despite the fact that Johnson and conservative hardliners helped kill a bipartisan Senate border security bill just weeks ago.

With the March 1 deadline approaching, Schumer warned senators in a “Dear Colleague” letter Sunday to keep their schedules flexible since no agreement had been reached:

In his own statement, Johnson asserted that Democrats had made new demands “that were not previously included in the Senate bills.”

Also: The House quietly added a short-term Federal Aviation Administration patch to the list of bills under consideration this week. The extension would keep the FAA authorized until May 10.

— Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan and Andrew Desiderio

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.