WASHINGTON (AP) — Staring down a possible government shutdown, the White House wanted to make sure any blame would fall at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue — specifically on House Republicans.
After all, it was the majority party in the House that had been paralyzed until Saturday by an inability to pass a funding package, stymied by members who don’t want to uphold a bipartisan spending agreement from earlier this year.
President Joe Biden is hoping the rest of the country would see things the same way. It’s a murky proposition at a time of extreme political polarization, with many Americans dug into their partisan corners regardless of the facts of the matter.
With a deadline looming, Congress on Saturday approved a short-term funding bill to keep federal agencies open through Nov. 17, and Biden quickly signed it. Speaker Kevin McCarthy dropped demands for steep spending cuts, but also cut aid for Ukraine.
In a statement, Biden said the bill was “good news for the American people.”
“But I want to be clear: we should never have been in this position in the first place. Just a few months ago, Speaker McCarthy and I reached a budget agreement to avoid precisely this type of manufactured crisis,” he said in a statement. “For weeks, extreme House Republicans tried to walk away from that deal by demanding drastic cuts that would have been devastating for millions of Americans. They failed.”
Had Congress not acted by the end of the day, federal workers would have stop getting paid, air travel might have been ensnarled by staffing shortages and food benefits would pause for some of the country’s most vulnerable families.
Asked on Friday if Biden should bear any responsibility for the potential shutdown, White House budget director Shalanda Young said “absolutely not” and accused Republicans of being cavalier with people’s lives.
“The guy who picks up the trash in my office won’t get a paycheck,” she said. “That’s real. And that’s what makes me angry.”
Anita Dunn, Biden’s senior adviser, blamed threat of shutdown on “the most extreme fringe” of House Republicans in a presentation to allies on Thursday. She said “we have to hold them accountable” and “make sure they pay the political price.”
Speaking from the White House, she criticized adherents of former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” coalition — but she stopped just short of using the MAGA acronym.
“We’re not allowed to actually use the M-word here in the White House right now,” said Dunn, referring to legal guidance intended to ensure compliance with the Hatch Act, which prevents political activity while administration officials are on the job. “But everyone here knows what I mean. It’s a four-letter word. It begins with M. It ends with A. It’s got an AG in the middle.”
Dunn added, “So those people are the ones who are refusing to do their job and shutting the government down for no reason.”
The crisis was a sequel to the standoff over raising the debt limit earlier this year. McCarthy, R-Calif., refused to authorize the federal government to issue debt unless Biden negotiated over spending cuts.
After resisting, Biden agreed to budget talks, reaching a bipartisan deal that averted a first-ever default. The White House had this time refused to negotiate, stressing that an agreement was already in place and House Republicans are refusing to honor its terms.
The bill passed Saturday increases federal disaster assistance by $16 billion, meeting Biden’s full request, but the lack of funding for Ukraine could set the stage for a fresh round of fights in the coming weeks.
“We cannot under any circumstances allow American support for Ukraine to be interrupted,” Biden said. “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.”
The White House messaging effort this week received no shortage of unintended help from Republicans themselves, with moderates criticizing their hard-right colleagues.
Rep. Mike Lawler, R-New York, said “just throwing a temper tantrum and stomping your feet — frankly, not only is it wrong — it’s just pathetic.”
Even McCarthy acknowledged recently that some members of his caucus “just want to burn the whole place down.”
At a Wednesday fundraiser outside San Francisco, Biden said McCarthy cares more about protecting his job as speaker than keeping the government open.
“The fact is that I think that the speaker is making a choice between his speakership and American interests,” Biden said.
Romina Boccia, a veteran of Washington fiscal debates and the director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute, said this situation was much different than the government shutdown in 2013.
At that time, Republicans were united around trying to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And even then, it didn’t work. Once the shutdown happened, Boccia recalled, “it didn’t provide any more leverage,” and “Republicans caved and reopened the government when they learned the hard way that they weren’t going to get their way.”
This time, she said, “it’s not clear what they’re trying to get out of a government shutdown. It just seems dysfunctional all around.”
Some polls conducted ahead of the expected shutdown suggest Biden and Democrats in Congress could bear a substantial portion of the blame had a closure occurred. But U.S. adults generally have two conflicting priorities regarding the federal budget.
About 60% of them say the government spends too much money, but majorities also back more money for Social Security, health care and infrastructure, according to a survey by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. This enables some Republicans to say the public backs them on cuts, but it also justifies spending on programs that are projected to contribute to higher deficits in the years to come.
The shutdown threat overlapped with Biden ramping up next year’s reelection campaign. For the past few months, the president has taken full ownership of the economy’s performance as inflation has dropped while unemployment has stayed low.
But an emerging set of risks are on the horizon and most U.S. adults still feel pessimistic about the country’s direction.
Mortgage rates are at a 22-year high. Oil prices are nearly $91 a barrel, pushing up the cost of gasoline. Unionized autoworkers are likely entering a third week of strikes. Student loan repayments are restarting. Pandemic-related money for child care centers is set to end, potentially triggering a set of closures that could hit working parents.
A government shutdown would be another dose of chaos that could cause pain for millions of households. White House officials who are ready to blame Republicans say they’d rather see a shutdown avoided.
“I’m still hoping,” Young said Friday. “I’m still remaining an optimist.”