Amid GOP confusion, U.S. braces for 'first-ever shutdown about nothing'

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In 1995 and 1996, the federal government shut down as House Republicans and the Clinton administration clashed over spending cuts. In 2013, the government shut down because of a partisan disagreement over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. In 2018, Democrats bucked President Donald Trump's demands to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall, leading to the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

And now?

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"We are truly heading for the first-ever shutdown about nothing," said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. Strain has started referring to the current GOP House-led impasse as "the 'Seinfeld' shutdown," a reference to the popular sitcom widely known as "a show about nothing." "The weirdest thing about it is that the Republicans don't have any demands. What do they want? What is it that they're going to shut the government down for? We simply don't know."

Lawmakers have until 12:01 a.m. Sunday to pass a new law to extend government funding, or a wide range of critical federal services will come to a halt. On Friday, House Republicans voted down their own proposal to approve a short-term spending bill to fund the government, as well as a separate effort that would have cut numerous essential government services by at least 30 percent. The failure left House GOP's leadership path forward unclear.

Typically, funding showdowns in divided government between Congress and the White House have featured pitched battles over specific policies, such as Trump's border wall or Obamacare. But budget experts and historians say the current impasse stands out for its lack of a clear policy disagreement.

House Republican leaders had already worked out an agreement with President Biden in May on government spending levels for the next fiscal year, but they're working on legislation that would spend far less than the agreed amounts. The House has no plans yet for a temporary extension to government funding, which means there haven't been significant negotiations with the Democratic Senate and White House. As long as House Republicans cannot find consensus on their demands, Democratic policymakers - largely backed in this fight by Senate Republicans - have declined to offer concessions, because they don't know which ones would suffice.

Asked by reporters Wednesday what could be done to avoid a shutdown, Biden responded, "If I knew that, I would've already done it."

Compounding the confusion is that it is not clear how or when House Republicans can forge consensus. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has for weeks tried to unify his caucus around a set of spending demands, but his efforts have been stymied in part because a handful of far-right insurgents keep changing their own demands. And so with less than two days until a shutdown, the legislative leaders tasked with funding the government appear stuck.

House Republican appropriators have advanced legislation that would dramatically slash the safety net and other domestic programs, including gutting some education subsidies by 80 percent. Those bills, however, are not only doomed in the Senate but also have failed to pass the House, leaving the lower chamber's policy priorities unclear.

"I frankly don't understand it - I think it's sort of nuts. There are times people vote yes one day, and then they come back and vote no the next day, and can't explain why they switched," said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a McCarthy ally. Gingrich led House Republicans through two different shutdowns nearly 30 years ago, a brief one in late 1995 and a longer one weeks later. "I find it hard to understand what they want, too, because they change constantly - that's a big part of the problem."

Asked if he has a hard time tracking the insurgents' demands of McCarthy, Gingrich said yes, adding, "So do they."

Grover Norquist, the president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, has tormented generations of GOP officials by organizing House backbenchers against their leaders. But he chastised the current group of House insurgents for failing to coalesce around an intelligible set of demands. The shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 eventually pushed Clinton and the GOP-led Congress to agree on balanced-budget legislation and other federal changes. Now, Norquist said, far-right members throw out so many different demands - an end to Ukraine funding, tougher immigration restrictions, dramatic spending cuts, changes to House procedures - that it is impossible to know what they want.

"You can't have seven reasons, and a different one each week, and expect American people to understand what your point was. In prior fights, there was a focus on why you were doing this. But right now, what would someone watching this on TV be taking away? It's about too many things, which makes this about nothing," Norquist said.

If this weekend truly does bring the "Seinfeld" shutdown, Norquist said, it will in part reflect the lack of clarity about what the holdouts in the House are demanding.

"One of the rules of 'Seinfeld' was: 'No learning takes place,'" he said. "And one of the rules from that show is the case here - there's no attempt here to learn from previous episodes."

In the White House and the Senate, Democrats have watched with a mixture of frustration and bafflement as House Republicans have struggled through successive rounds of infighting.

Though shutdowns typically get blamed on the GOP, the Biden administration wants to keep the government open, and White House aides are in frequent contact with leaders in the House and the Senate about the best way forward.

But there appears little for them to do: If McCarthy manages to advance a bill through the House, then Democratic officials can consider what to offer in response. Until that happens, the administration's options are limited.

"There is quite literally nothing for the White House to do. Are they supposed to try to mediate between the House Republican leadership and Freedom Caucus?" said Dean Baker, an economist at the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research who is a Biden ally.

As frustrating as the House's indecision may be for the White House and the Senate, McCarthy faces his own vexing path forward.

The House speaker has for months tried to build consensus within his party on government spending. And at nearly every turn, a small faction of far-right lawmakers has blocked his plans.

First, folding to pressure from the right, McCarthy broke the deal he reached months ago with Biden during the debt ceiling negotiations that would have kept government funding levels largely flat, instead urging that legislation cut spending for fiscal year 2024. But when House GOP leaders moved forward with appropriations bills that met lower spending targets, far-right House conservatives again objected, derailing the defense bill McCarthy tried moving. More recently, McCarthy has floated enormous automatic cuts to domestic spending programs of as much as 8 percent or even 27 percent, potentially coupled with an immigration crackdown, to try to get some legislation through the House.

Those efforts also floundered because the small faction of hard-line conservatives have rejected any attempt to pass one bill to fund the government, even temporarily - and even if they include massive cuts that could never pass the Senate. They instead want to pass 12 separate appropriations bills, which McCarthy promised during his campaign for speaker. But passing all 12 of the appropriations bills necessary to fund the government would take weeks that Congress does not have.

McCarthy and his top aides have also started blaming the White House's immigration enforcement work for the shutdown. This strategy, too, has faltered, in part House Republicans as recently as last week introduced a bill to fund the government that would have cut spending for the Department of Homeland Security by about 8 percent, undermining their demands for more immigration enforcement.

Some Republican strategists have complained about Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), one of the most bombastic GOP holdouts, who recently sent a fundraising email that blamed McCarthy for the potential shutdown.

"Gaetz is threatening the speaker's job if he works with Democrats, while leaving no choice to but to rely on Democratic votes," said Liam Donovan, who worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "The entire exercise is designed to fail. It's all impressively nihilistic."

The action on the House floor this week captured just how far afield the debate has strayed.

Far-right lawmakers offered dozens of amendments to the defense bill that had no chance of passing the Senate and an uncertain fate in the House. Lawmakers voted on stripping tens of millions of dollars from the Peace Corps, reducing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's salary to $1, and eliminating international aid for disaster assistance. Other amendments included cutting the salary of U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to $1 and banning State Department employees from using taxpayer dollars to attend events or conferences hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative.

"It's a symbolic fight for bomb-throwing lawmakers who want to pick a fight with Republican leadership, no matter what," said Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. "It's not really about anything."

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