Chaos on Capitol Hill as Prospect of Shutdown Looms

John Boehner
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner urged fellow Republicans on Tuesday to pass a spending bill that funds most of the federal government through September 30, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

With the federal government set to run out of money at the stroke of midnight, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have yet to figure out how to keep the government open.

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives were unable to secure enough votes to pass a $1.1 trillion spending agreement that would have funded the federal government for the next nine months. As of early Thursday evening, House leaders have yet to decide whether to bring the spending agreement to a vote on the floor or, more likely at this late hour, quickly rush through a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded on a short-term basis. The Senate is expected to follow whichever direction the House takes.

The chaos that took over the Capitol Thursday afternoon came after Republicans expressed confidence that the so-called "cromnibus"—the continuing resolution plus omnibus spending bill—would pass without the drama that has generally haunted budget agreements over the past few years. "I expect this bill will receive bipartisan support and pass," Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters.

The first sign that the bill was in trouble came when the House voted on the rule for the cromnibus, the terms under which the bill would be brought to the floor for a vote. Republicans barely managed to pass the rule—the final vote was 214-212, with every Democrat voting against it.

"It is very up in the air," Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, said after the vote on the rule. "The vote on the rule was the easier of the two votes for them," he said of Republicans. "They're in worse shape on the bill itself; they need a lot of Democratic votes, maybe more than we were thinking."

Democrats, meanwhile, had begun to turn against the bill. While not formally whipping one way or the other, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, took to the House floor after the rule vote to blast poison pills buried in the bill and the White House's support of those provisions, including a policy rider that would roll back a piece of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill pertaining to risky derivatives trades.

Most of the drama in Congress in recent years has been on the Republican side of the aisle, with the so-called establishment wing of the party dealing with a rebellious Tea Party wing. That dynamic persisted Thursday, as Boehner couldn't bring his whole caucus on board.

But it wasn't just Republicans who were divided. Democrats are split over the cromnibus too, with the White House supporting the bill while Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a pro-Wall-Street reform crusader and new member of the Senate Democratic leadership team, ripping the bill's so-called "Wall Street giveaway."

The White House came out for the spending package Thursday afternoon, saying President Barack Obama intends to sign it if it reaches his desk. But that announcement didn't sway enough Democrats. In a floor speech Thursday, Pelosi said she was "enormously disappointed" in the White House's decision to support the bill with the Wall Street provision.

Warren took to the Senate floor Thursday to urge Republicans to oppose the so-called "Wall Street giveaway" after urging Democrats to do the same on Wednesday. "A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street," she said, according to her prepared remarks. "When the next bailout comes, a lot of people will look back at this vote to see who is responsible for putting the government back on the hook to bail out Wall Street."

Liberal groups likewise pounced on the president Thursday, urging lawmakers to vote against the deal. "The White House has no business giving cover to Wall Street Wing Democrats on this absurd right-wing power grab, and the fact that they are is one of the reasons why there's a growing movement encouraging Elizabeth Warren to enter the 2016 race for president," Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America, said in a statement.

After the vote on the rule, Republicans delayed the scheduled vote on the final bill. Around 3 p.m. EST, Pelosi's office circulated a letter to House Democrats and the press stating that "it is clear from this recess on the floor that the Republicans don't have enough votes to pass the cromnibus. This increases our leverage to get two offensive provisions of the bill removed: the bank bailout and big money for campaigns provision."

As the situation became more fluid Thursday afternoon, the Obama administration began to get in on the action, with the president, vice president and even Cabinet members making calls to House Democrats to shore up support for the spending deal.

So, apparently WH officials at all levels, from the president on down, are working the Hill right now to save this thing.

— Michael McAuliff (@mmcauliff) December 11, 2014

Just before 5 p.m., White House spokesman Josh Earnest went on MSNBC to explain the White House's support for the bill. He noted that the bill contains funding for early education and increases in funding for the agencies that regulate Wall Street. "This is a pretty good deal," he said. Earnest also stressed that the deal—which doesn't touch funding for the Affordable Care Act, the president's executive action on immigration or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, all top items on the GOP's wish list—could have been a whole lot worse for Democrats.

Earnest was speaking to a real fear among some Democrats that if a spending deal is delayed until the next Congress, when Republicans control both houses, Democrats will find themselves with a bill they like even less.

But not all Democrats seem afraid of this possibility. As Democrats continued to hold their support for the deal Thursday evening and huddled for a meeting in the Capitol, some expressed hope that they could use their leverage to get an even better deal. As Pelosi wrote in her afternoon letter to her colleagues, "However you decide to vote in the end, I thank those who continue to give us leverage to improve the bill."