WASHINGTON: Funding for the federal government lapsed at midnight Eastern Time after Kentucky Republican Rand Paul stalled a Senate vote on a far-reaching budget agreement to fund the government through 22 March while also eliminating caps on government spending and suspending the debt ceiling for the year.
The shutdown was expected to last only a few hours, giving the Senate and the House time to pass the 600-page, half-trillion dollar funding bill.
As the clock neared midnight, opposition to the deal appeared to be growing in the House, with lawmakers on either side of the political spectrum voicing objections.
The Senate voted early Friday morning, before sending the bill to the House where its future was less certain. It approved the legislation by a bipartisan majority of 71-28.
Paul objected to the fact that deal would result in a significant increase in the federal budget deficit without any corresponding cuts to spending.
He complained in an interview with Fox News: “I’m not advocating for shutting down the government.” Instead, Paul said: “I’m also not advocating for keeping the damn thing open and borrowing a million dollars a minute. This is reckless spending that is out of control.”
Senate rules only allowed the Kentucky Republican to block a vote until after 1 AM on Friday morning.
“The senator from Kentucky by objecting to the unanimous consent requests will effectively shut down the federal government, for no real reason,” John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, said in remarks on the floor.
Cornyn later expressed his deep discontent with his colleague to reporters. The Texas Republican called Paul’s actions “grossly irresponsible” and said he would not make concessions to the Kentucky Republican. “Why to reward bad behavior?” asked Cornyn.
This disdain was shared by other Republicans. Roy Blunt of Missouri said of Paul’s actions, “this doesn’t really seem to have a point” while John Thune of South Dakota described it as “kinda a colossal waste of everybody’s time.”
However, that was an hour after authorization for the federal government to spend money expired. The deal was expected to have bipartisan support to pass in the Senate. There was still significant doubt about whether it would muster enough support to pass in the House of Representatives where a coalition of conservatives and liberals had united in opposition.
Conservatives, including the hard-right Freedom Caucus, were deeply opposed to the deficit spending in the bill. Liberals, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, were outraged that the proposal did not include any protection for “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who face potential deportation on 5 March.
House Democrats left a closed-door meeting on Thursday deeply divided over a path forward. Many members do not trust Paul Ryan’s assurance to bring an immigration bill to the floor and feared that they would lose any leverage to force a vote to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation if they gave Republicans enough votes to pass the budget measure.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi planned to oppose the bill, and despite suggestions that she would not pressure her colleagues to follow suit, appeared to be doing just that.
House Democrats said Pelosi appealed to members to vote against the budget bill if Ryan did not provide a stronger commitment on immigration, though leaders did not formally whip the vote.
Pelosi is under immense pressure from immigration activists and progressive lawmakers in her caucus to take a hardline for “dreamers”, the young undocumented immigrants who could lose protections from deportation under a program that Donald Trump has rescinded.
Activists have staged large-scale protests and sit-ins demanding Democrats take a stand on immigration, only to be disappointed when they fail to force a vote on immigration legislation.
Democrats triggered a brief shutdown in January and relented only after securing a promise from Majority leader Mitch McConnell to debate the issue on the Senate floor. Democrats in the House are seeing a similar commitment from Ryan.
Ryan said on Thursday he would bring an immigration bill to the floor that the president would sign. But the pledge that rings hollow to many Democrats who believe the White House’s immigration demands are too draconian.