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Don’t Expect a Government Shutdown, But Don’t Rule It Out Either

There is a ton of hype about a potential government shutdown — just like there was in April and in September. Current government funding expires on Friday. In these moments, it’s always a little hard to tell how seriously to take the prospect of a shutdown. Chances are it won’t happen — unless Democrats make a big strategic shift in how they approach these funding negotiations. So, don’t panic, but also … here’s what to watch for so you’ll know if the time to panic comes.

Why is a shutdown unlikely? Because government funding is, weirdly, an issue on which Republicans and Democrats tend to work together fairly well. Why is that weird? First, Democrats and Republicans, as a general rule, don’t work well together. And in theory — as the debates on Obamacare repeal and tax policy this year showed — the two parties have very different philosophies about the issue that underlies the government funding debate: the role and size of the federal government. Whenever funding is due to expire, it’s easy to imagine that a Washington that’s so dysfunctional in other ways will also break down and fail to fund the government. That explains all the shutdown hype.

In reality, more moderate members in both parties keep reaching deals and avoiding shutdowns, perhaps because there are real, immediate consequences if they don’t: Important functions and services would stop.

Last September, for example, at the tail end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a bill to fund the government for the last months of his tenure passed easily, even as Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress. In the House, 172 Democrats and 170 Republicans voted for the funding bill, while 75 Republicans (many from the House Freedom Caucus) and 10 Democrats voted against it. A bipartisan majority (40 Republicans, 32 Democrats) also approved the funding bill in the Senate.

Donald Trump is president now and Republicans still control all of Congress. So in theory, Republicans could pass a funding bill along largely partisan lines. But the funding bill that Congress passed in May had a coalition of 178 Democrats and 131 Republicans in the House, while 103 Republicans and 15 Democrats voted against it. In the Senate, 47 Democrats and 32 Republicans voted yes. The vote was fairly similar to the September budget vote at the end of Obama’s presidency, and to the one a year later, in September of 2017, that passed another government funding bill through both chambers with bipartisan support.

So, all else being equal, we’d expect the same thing to happen again.

How much power do Democrats have? Government spending bills can be blocked via a filibuster, so they require, in effect, 60 votes in the Senate. That gives Democrats much more power in this process than they had in the Obamacare repeal and tax reform debates.1 Ultimately, while a government spending bill can pass in the House without any Democratic votes, at least eight Democrats must back such a bill in the Senate.

As I’ve noted, though, the last couple of times Congress dodged a shutdown (in April and in September), Republicans didn’t pass a GOP-friendly bill by peeling off the necessary Democratic votes. Instead, Congress passed more moderate spending bills that had more opposition from Republicans than Democrats. This is odd considering that Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

So what’s going on here?

Well, a large bloc of Republicans, both in the House (think the Freedom Caucus) and the Senate (think Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul) want large spending cuts in exchange for supporting a funding bill. Republican congressional leaders, instead of trying to force those cuts through Congress and demand some Senate Democrats sign onto them, have instead usually settled on passing bills that call for spending levels that some Republicans and most Democrats can live with.

Since these bipartisan deals have been reached without too much drama, we don’t have a great sense for which party has the weaker hand. Could House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell get 218 Republicans in the House and 52 in the Senate behind a more GOP-tilted spending bill, basically daring Senate Democrats to shut down the government? (A shutdown could hurt the re-election prospects of Democrats in red states.) Or are these bipartisan deals masking the fact that the more conservative and more moderate GOP members are so deeply divided that they could never actually agree on a spending deal? (Under this theory, people like Paul and the Freedom Caucus in some ways prefer that GOP leaders reach deals with Democrats, which leaves the most conservative members free to vote against the compromise bill and attack it to show their right-wing bona fides.)

So why don’t the same Democrats and Republicans who voted for a government funding bill in April and September just do that again? Ultimately, I think that will happen — either in a series of short-term funding extensions or in one big one. That’s why a shutdown is unlikely.

But some Democrats are saying that the party should no longer participate in this informal bipartisan government funding pact. Democrats have a few policy priorities right now, such as extending funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and protecting people who signed up for Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Some key liberal lawmakers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are promising that they will not vote for a government funding bill unless it includes some kind of replacement for DACA.

The resolution here probably comes down to the House. If the House can pass a spending bill with only Republican votes, that makes it risky for Senate Democrats to refuse to vote for government funding unless DACA is included. The public might blame Democrats for any resulting shutdown. Also, Democrats are the more pro-government party, so it is hard to see them pushing a strategy that would help facilitate a shutdown, even if people like Sanders and Warren prefer more hard-line tactics.

But only 133 House Republicans voted for the spending bill in September, while 90 opposed it. If those same 90 Republicans and about two-thirds of the Democrats opposed a spending bill, it would fail. That would be a bipartisan failure, but mostly a Republican one, since they have the majority in the House.

So the most likely outcome from December and January is that there will be even more hype about a shutdown, but then Congress will pass funding bills that authorize spending at about the current levels and do not include a DACA fix — bills that will be opposed by the more partisan members of each party (like Paul and Warren). That would be the status quo and the easiest way to prevent a shutdown. But it’s hard to be sure whether this scenario will play out, because we don’t know (i) how many House Republicans will back a government funding bill, or (ii) whether Senate Democrats are really willing to stop government funding over DACA.


  1. Republicans used “reconciliation” rules for those bills, allowing them to pass with a simple majority.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.