WASHINGTON — As House Republicans struggled to overcome internal divisions and pass a short-term spending bill, Northwest lawmakers from both parties on Wednesday said a government shutdown appeared increasingly likely.
After striking a deal with Democrats in May to limit federal spending in exchange for raising the nation's debt ceiling to avert economic disaster, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has bowed to pressure from far-right lawmakers to demand steeper budget cuts and conservative policy priorities. But with Democrats in control of the Senate and White House, refusing to compromise would mean the government running out of money at the end of September.
"There are some Republicans who believe you should only negotiate with Republicans, as if we are the deciding factor," Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, said Tuesday. "We're not. This government was based on compromise — people of different opinions getting together, working out something you could both live with — and people have forgotten that."
Simpson, one of the 12 "cardinals" who lead the subcommittees that control the annual appropriations process, rated the odds of a shutdown at about 90%, because passing a spending bill in divided government requires the parties to work together.
In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., has worked with her Republican counterpart, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to advance bipartisan spending bills. The fact that the same thing hasn't happened in the House, Simpson said, tells him that "the government is kind of broken and we need to reset."
"We're passing bills here that are crazy," the veteran lawmaker said, referring to appropriations bills that would make what he called "dramatic cuts" to law enforcement agencies, schools and other programs that have historically had bipartisan support.
Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, is part of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing lawmakers who have succeeded in pushing McCarthy to demand sharper spending cuts. While he is concerned about the impact a shutdown could have on people in his district, Fulcher said the nation's $1.52 trillion deficit in the current fiscal year — which has pushed the national debt above $33 trillion — is "a worthy reason for an impasse."
House Republicans have so far failed to overcome their own internal divisions and pass all but one of the 12 full-year appropriations bills, leaving a short-term spending bill as the only option to avert a shutdown. If they manage to pass a short-term measure, it would go to the Senate, where the Democratic majority opposes further spending cuts and the policy measures some Republicans want to include.
"The theory is if we start at a lower number, by the time we get it out of the Senate, we're in a better negotiating position," Fulcher said.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, declined an interview request but said in a statement that she hoped Republicans and Democrats would work together to avoid a shutdown while sticking to the spending limits set by the deal McCarthy struck with Democrats in May, which Senate appropriators have done.
"I believe this is the best way for us to end the unsustainable and out-of-control spending that has saddled the next generations with $33 trillion in debt," she said. "As always, I will give any proposal that comes together careful consideration before making a decision."
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, also serves on the House Appropriations Committee and said McCarthy has told House Republicans that the spending deal only set a maximum spending level, not a minimum. The White House and congressional Democrats accuse McCarthy of reneging on that deal, and Newhouse said GOP lawmakers need to understand they can't get everything they want when they only control the House.
"We don't have control of the Senate, we don't have control of the White House, and we could put a list together of everything we think should be done, but that's not going to be," he said.
Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs, said the House could easily avert a shutdown if McCarthy agreed to bring a bill to the floor that would simply fund the government at current levels — often called a "clean" continuing resolution — to give Congress time to pass a full-year spending bill.
"There is a simple solution, which is to take the bipartisan bill that the Senate has already agreed upon, to bring it to the floor, and it will pass," Schrier said. "This is not a Republican-versus-Democrat problem. This is a uniquely House Republican problem."
But GOP hardliners have threatened to oust McCarthy if he made such a move. As part of a deal to secure the votes he needed to become speaker in January, McCarthy agreed to change House rules so that a single member can call for a vote to remove him. Yet the far-right lawmakers making those demands are unlikely to vote for any compromise spending bill that comes back from the Senate.
"They've just made everything so extreme that they can't count on Democratic votes, but apparently they can't count on Republican votes either, even though they have the majority," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Like other Washington Democrats, Schrier said she is concerned about the national deficit and debt, but she said reducing them will require a combination of spending cuts and increased revenue.
Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, a Democrat who represents southwestern Washington, called the debt "a huge problem," but said a real solution could only come through the parties working together.
"So many of these clowns are just 'Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut,' and you can't fix the national debt without being serious about actually taxing billionaires and Fortune 500 companies," she said. "It's got to be both sides of the ledger to actually address the national debt, but these theatrics are just motivated by a lot of people who really want to be on cable news."
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said the odds of a shutdown depend largely on the choices McCarthy makes before the end of the month, comparing the speaker's relationship with the Freedom Caucus to a dysfunctional couple.
"We've all had friends who were in relationships where you say, 'Not only is this person not good for you, they're just not into you,' " said Kilmer, a member of the Appropriations Committee. "That's kind of the dynamic that the speaker has with the Freedom Caucus. They're not ever going to vote for anything — certainly not anything that can pass the Senate and be signed by Joe Biden."
Like Simpson, Kilmer said there's only one way the impasse can end: with bipartisan bills that pass the House, pass the Senate and are signed into law by President Joe Biden. Whether that can happen without McCarthy losing his coveted position as speaker remains to be seen.