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Last-gasp deal averts US government shutdown

By AFP - Oct 01,2023 - Last updated at Oct 01,2023

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with members of the media on Saturday in Washington, DC (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — The US Congress passed an 11th-hour funding bill on Saturday to keep federal agencies running for another 45 days and avert a costly government shutdown — although the deal left out aid to war-torn Ukraine requested by President Joe Biden. 

Three hours before the midnight Saturday deadline, the Senate voted to keep the lights on through mid-November with a resolution that had advanced earlier from the House of Representatives in a day of high-stakes brinkmanship on Capitol Hill.

The last-ditch "continuing resolution" was pitched by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as millions of public workers looked set to be sent home unpaid, upending government functions from military operations to food aid to federal policymaking.

"Tonight, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to keep the government open, preventing an unnecessary crisis that would have inflicted needless pain on millions of hardworking Americans," Biden said in a statement.

But he berated McCarthy and the House Republicans for reneging on spending levels agreed with the White House months ago — a major reason for the shutdown near-miss — and for stripping out support for Ukraine.

"I fully expect the speaker will keep his commitment to the people of Ukraine and secure passage of the support needed to help Ukraine at this critical moment," said the president, who is set to sign the measure into law in the coming hours.

The shutdown crisis was largely triggered by a small group of hardline Republicans who had defied their own party leadership to scupper various temporary funding proposals as they pressed for deep spending cuts.

The group of 21 hardliners had threatened to remove McCarthy as speaker if a stopgap measure they opposed was passed with Democrat support, and many Washington watchers were expecting the speaker to have to fight for his job in the coming weeks.

One of the group, Lauren Boebert, declined to say after the House vote whether she and her colleagues would try to force McCarthy out, but she was clearly unhappy with the outcome.


Time to negotiate 


"There are too many members here who are comfortable doing things the way they've been done since the mid '90s," she told reporters. "And that's why we're sitting at $33 trillion in debt."

McCarthy sought to convey confidence both about his own future and the prospects for securing a final agreement within the new timeframe.

"In 45 days we should get our work all done," he said, while seeming to offer a hand to the hardliners, saying, "I welcome those 21 back in." 

Arming and funding Kyiv in its desperate war against the Russian invasion has been a key policy plank for the Biden administration and, while the stopgap is temporary, it does raise questions over the political viability of renewing the multibillion-dollar flow of assistance.

McCarthy said Russia's invasion was "horrendous," but insisted there could be "no blank check" for Ukraine.

"I have a real concern of what's going to happen long term, but I don't want to waste any money," he said.

With tensions running high as Democrats pored over the text of McCarthy's proposal, one of their lawmakers, Jamaal Bowman, triggered a fire alarm in a building housing congressional offices an hour before the House vote.

Bowman's spokesman insisted it was an accident, but Republicans accused him of seeking to delay proceedings.

If Congress had failed to keep the government open, the closures would have begun just after midnight (04:00 GMT Sunday) and would have delayed salaries for millions of federal employees and military personnel.

A shutdown would have meant the majority of national parks, for example — from the iconic Yosemite and Yellowstone in the west to Florida's Everglades swamp — shutting to the public from Sunday.

The stopgap measure buys legislators time to negotiate full-year spending bills for the rest of fiscal 2024.


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