Plenty of DC Drama, Just Not About a Shutdown

Plenty of DC Drama, Just Not About a Shutdown


The intensifying D.C. dramas this week over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s fate — both likely to crescendo on Thursday — are overshadowing a much less dramatic win for Congress and the GOP, writes Politico’s Sarah Ferris:

"By Wednesday night, both chambers of Congress are expected to have cleared 87 percent of federal funding without a single blow-up, and with days to spare before the Sept. 30 deadline for fiscal 2019. That includes the Pentagon’s first on-time annual funding bill in 22 years, a success that would normally be a selling point Republicans would be touting six weeks ahead of a midterm election."

The House on Wednesday afternoon passed a package containing two of the 12 annual appropriations bills and a continuing resolution providing money until December 7 for federal departments and agencies that Congress hasn't yet funded for 2019. Together with an earlier appropriations package, Congress has now approved 75 percent of 2019 discretionary funding. And if President Trump signs the latest legislation, lawmakers will have averted a government shutdown after September 30 without 11th-hour brinksmanship.

In recent years, the threat of a government shutdown likely would have dominated the news cycle, with cable TV countdown clocks ticking down the seconds to the September 30 deadline to pass spending legislation and keep federal offices open. And lawmakers now patting themselves on the back — justified as they may be — for steering back toward regular order on the budget and appropriations process might have been able to score more pre-election attention for an unusually bipartisan process or for funding their partisan priorities. 

After all, the $854 billion spending package heading to the president's desk includes wins that the GOP can easily tout, like some $20 billion more for defense and the biggest pay raise for the military in nearly a decade — and plenty for Democrats to trumpet, like additional money for education and health care, including a funding bump for the National Institutes of Health and more spending to combat the opioid epidemic.

Under different circumstances, we might also have seen a more robust debate over the level of spending in the 2019 appropriations bills, given the $153 billion increase Congress agreed to earlier this year, just months after passing a massive tax cut. “Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back for adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit in an orderly manner,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Let’s instead work together to stabilize the nation’s finances.”

But it's an unassailable reality of the Trump era: Scandal, turmoil and drama dominate, pushing the regular business of governing out of the headlines and off our screens. “We would love to be talking about it,” one senior GOP aide told Politico of the appropriations progress. “We’re competing against a news cycle right now that’s pretty unforgiving, and it’s hard to break through.”

True to form, Trump had injected some mild drama into the September 30 deadline with repeated threats to shut down the government in an effort to secure more funding for a border wall with Mexico. “I want to know, where is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this ridiculous Spending Bill, and where will it come from after the Midterms?” he tweeted last week. “Dems are obstructing Law Enforcement and Border Security. REPUBLICANS MUST FINALLY GET TOUGH!”

But he signaled Wednesday that those threats were mostly political posturing and that, to the relief of many in the GOP, he’s willing to put off a fight over the border wall until after the midterm elections. "We'll keep the government open. We're going to keep the government open," he told reporters during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the United Nations General Assembly.

Of course, Trump could still change his mind, especially if the Kavanaugh hearing doesn’t go well for him — or at least that’s the fear among some in D.C. So we won’t say that the shutdown has been averted until the president puts pen to paper.

This article was updated at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, September 26.