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Congress just dodged a government shutdown. Here’s what comes next.

- April 28, 2017


With votes Friday morning in the House and Senate, Congress narrowly avoided a partial shutdown of the federal government — but only for a week. Members of both chambers will return next week to resume work on a measure to keep the government running through September.  While the worst possible outcome was prevented, this ongoing struggle with one of Congress’s most basic functions illustrates several challenges facing the Republican Congress.

How did we get here?

Why was there even a chance of a shutdown?  In December, rather than finishing work on spending bills for fiscal year 2017, Republicans agreed to the incoming Trump administration’s request to wait. This was to allow the new administration to have a role in talks.

The process has also dragged out because the Republicans need Democratic votes. Thanks to the threat of a filibuster, any final deal needs to attract the votes of at least eight Democrats to pass the Senate.

But adding and removing provisions from that final bill to win Democratic votes in the Senate has the potential to alienate conservative Republicans, especially in the House, where current levels of intraparty division are high. There may also be Republicans who oppose the final deal less because of specific grievances and more because they object to its overall level of spending or because they believe that large, omnibus measures are not the appropriate way to handle decisions about federal resources.

If that group of House Republicans willing to vote against the final bill is big enough, leaders will have to turn to Democrats for help getting across the finish line. (They narrowly avoided needing them on today’s one-week extension.)  This dynamic — which should feel familiar from the repeated similar fights during the Obama years — is part of why the process has dragged out for so long.  Because Democrats know their support will be needed for a bill that keeps the government open through September, they have attempted to extract concessions from Republicans.

The GOP’s bigger challenge is just governing

For Republicans, however, the challenges of this spending fight aren’t just about mastering the math. As Frances Lee has argued, controlling Congress and the White House puts increased pressure on a party to move beyond partisan messaging and deliver actual legislative victories. However, many rank-and-file Republican members are unfamiliar with those pressures, since only about 25 percent of the current GOP House members and roughly half of current Republican senators were serving in Congress the last time the party had fully unified government in 2006.

But we should remember that Democrats were in a similar position when they had unified control of government in 2009. Roughly 30 percent of House Democrats in 2009 had been serving when the party had last held both houses and the presidency (1994) along with approximately 57 percent of Democratic senators. Democrats nevertheless produced a series of major pieces of legislation in 2009-2010, including the Affordable Care Act. Inexperience with governing, then, is only, at best, part of the story.

The U.S. Capitol building. (Photo by John Kelly/TWP)

What is President Trump’s role, exactly?

Another challenge for the current congressional GOP involves President Trump himself. Presidents do have some ability to set the agenda, and in this case Trump helped establish the terms of debate with his March proposal for an increase in defense spending, a cut in non-defense spending, and explicit funding for the border wall.

However, Trump’s persuasive power appears limited. This power is greater when the president is popular, and Trump’s approval ratings are obviously at historic lows for an early term president. So Trump lacks leverage with members of Congress and cannot necessarily provide political cover for members as he seeks to get them to cast difficult votes.

Presidents also face this dilemma: taking a public position on an issue can worsen existing disagreements between the parties. Trump’s hard line on the subsidy payments under Obamacare — threatening to stop making them unless Congress acts while simultaneously accusing Democrats of threatening to shut down the government over them — illustrates this dynamic well.  While the debate over the payments had been one of many ongoing points of conflict on the final bill between the parties in Congress, Trump’s pronouncements helped elevate its profile as a potential stumbling block.

While Congress managed, for now, to escape the worst possible outcome, spending bills remain one of the institution’s few “must pass” items each year.  The next set of bills won’t necessarily be easier, with questions about whether to relax the limits on discretionary spending put in place in 2011 and Trump’s first full set of budget requests on the horizon. Republicans’ intraparty divisions, Democrats’ attempts to exercise influence where they can, and a polarizing president likely mean a long summer (and fall?) of fiscal fights ahead.

Molly E. Reynolds is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Follow her on Twitter @mollyereynolds.