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Yes, Congress could shut the government down tomorrow. It probably won’t.

- January 18, 2018

Back in December 2017, Sarah Binder, John Sides and I chatted here at TMC about how Congress had flirted with a government shutdown but ultimately avoided it. Fast-forward six weeks, and here we are again. The stopgap funding bill Congress and President Trump adopted last month runs out Friday. Will Congress reach a deal to keep the lights on again?

Why a shutdown is still possible

Congress is still struggling to reach agreement on two spending deals: a two-year package to lift tough caps on domestic and military spending and the 12 annual government spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2017.

With no deals in hand, House Republican leaders have proposed another stopgap bill to fund the government — kicking the can to buy Congress another month to negotiate. But they may not have the votes to pass and send it along to the Senate yet.

Republicans in Congress have been plagued by internal divisions throughout the first year of the Trump presidency, forcing them to narrow their legislative agenda. This week’s spending bill is no different. Some members of Congress, like House Armed Services Committee members Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), do not want to delay increasing military spending. Others, like Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), have said they want to see a plan for reducing nondefense spending before they are willing to support another stopgap measure. Still others, like some members of the House Freedom Caucus, are threatening to withhold support from the spending bill until House GOP leaders schedule a vote on a conservative piece of immigration legislation. Under that  logic, if the House passes that immigration bill, it will strengthen conservatives’ hand in ongoing negotiations on the issue.

If House Republicans can’t muster the votes to pass the stopgap bill, GOP leaders would need to look across the aisle for help. But House Democrats aren’t eager to bail out their GOP colleagues. The Republican proposal is silent on the status of DACA recipients, or “dreamers,” a term for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Saving the dreamers from deportation is an issue popular with Democratic voters — and some House Democrats have said they will only vote for the stopgap bill if it offers security for the dreamers. What’s more, the party out of power may not feel compelled to help its opponents win a legislative victory. This all could lead to a shutdown this week.

Why we may avoid a shutdown yet again

But Congress appears likely to avoid a shutdown. Democrats last year largely avoided potential divisions on legislative issues, thanks to Republicans’ focus on nominations and a partisan determination to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut taxes.

But maintaining unity in the face of this week’s spending bill may be more challenging. Republicans have tacked a six-year reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program onto the bill — essentially daring Democrats to vote against the popular program, which is currently running low on funds. Vulnerable Democratic senators running for reelection in red states that Trump won — like Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia — may find it particularly challenging to vote against health care for kids atop the possibility of having to justify a government shutdown to their voters. 

But wait, there’s more

Congress has other “must-pass” bills coming up in the next few weeks. Republicans and Democrats have to finalize an agreement on the overall amount of federal spending for this fiscal year. Once that’s been passed, Congress will have to write and pass a measure actually allocating money to different federal programs for the balance of the year. Congress also must finish a supplemental disaster aid bill, and must raise the government’s debt ceiling again before mid-March. Waiting to fix DACA will profoundly affect the dreamers — but members may well believe they’ll get another chance to do so. Deadlines force difficult decisions only when legislators really believe there’s no other chance to act.

This week’s temporary spending bill — the fourth since September — is just one symptom of broader dysfunction in the congressional budget process. While Congress may well make it out of the week with federal programs still running, we could well find ourselves back here next month.

Molly E. Reynolds is a fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution.  She is the author of “Exceptions to the Rule: The Politics of Filibuster Limitations in the U.S. Senate” (Brookings, 2017) and is on Twitter at @mollyereynolds.