'Chaotic' US Congress faces whirlwind of shutdown, impeachment, border fights

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[February 26, 2024]  By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress lurches into a new week of political chaos on Monday, as lawmakers struggle to avoid a partial government shutdown in just five days, while pushing for an election-year trial of President Joe Biden's top border official.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is also grasping for a way forward on vital U.S. aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, and plans to hear closed-door testimony from Biden's son, Hunter Biden, in an impeachment probe that has failed so far to turn up evidence of wrongdoing by the president.

Congress has been characterized by Republican brinkmanship and muddled priorities over the past year, more so since Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump undermined a bipartisan border deal in the Senate and now wants aid to U.S. allies extended as loans.

Almost two months have passed since Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed on a $1.59 trillion discretionary spending level for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

Since then, Congress has failed to follow through with the detailed legislation that would put that agreement into effect.

"It's becoming more chaotic," said Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. "The longer Congress is dysfunctional, the further they fall behind on very time-sensitive, high-priority legislation."

That dysfunction has eclipsed classic partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats, with hardliners now forming their own opposition party within Republican ranks.

Major ratings agencies say the repeated brinkmanship is taking a toll on the creditworthiness of a nation whose debt has surpassed $34 trillion.

In the latest sign of an ungovernable House Republican majority, some hardliners are threatening to oust Johnson as speaker, if the Christian conservative allows a vote on the $95 billion foreign aid bill that passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

On another front, the White House has stepped up personal attacks on Johnson for blocking bills Biden supports.

Biden plans to meet with Schumer, Johnson and other congressional leaders on Tuesday.

FRIDAY DEADLINE

The most urgent task for Congress is averting a partial shutdown when funding runs out at midnight Friday.

Lawmakers currently do not have a plan to prevent that from happening. Schumer said on Sunday that Republicans need more time to "sort themselves out," while Johnson accused Democrats of imposing new demands.

Representative Tom Cole, a top appropriator, hopes to see as many as four packages with discretionary funding for the entire government. The House is expected to move first, though its rules mean lawmakers might not vote until Thursday the day before funds expire.

Some lawmakers worry that hardline demands for policy riders that restrict access to abortion, defund diversity programs and promote gun rights could cause further delay.

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A man uses his mobile phone near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2024. REUTERS/Nathan Howard

But Representative Mike Simpson, a senior Republican appropriator, said Congress can steer clear of a shutdown.

"We cannot let unrealistic policy expectations get in the way of effective governing. We must get these bills across the finish line," Simpson said in a statement.

IMPEACHMENT TIMING UNCLEAR

Further complicating the path forward, senators are due to be sworn in as jurors for the trial of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who the House impeached along partisan lines on Feb. 13 on charges that he has failed to enforce immigration law and made false statements to Congress.

But a Senate trial cannot begin until the House delivers the articles of impeachment, and sources said the two chambers have not yet agreed on a delivery date.

To avert a shutdown, Schumer may need unanimous consent from senators, including raucous Republican hardliners, if the chamber is to act on appropriations before the Friday deadline.

"It's going to be difficult to get it done on time," said Senator John Boozman, a senior Republican appropriator. "Hopefully, we won't have a government shutdown. But if we do, just a few days as we're working in good faith to get it passed, that really wouldn't mean much."

The absence of time has led to speculation that lawmakers could opt for a short-term stopgap measure to keep federal agencies open while Congress acts.

Johnson and other Republicans oppose a short-term stopgap, known as a continuing resolution or CR. But circumstances may have the last say.

"If it's an option between a three-day shutdown and a three-day CR, I'd do the CR," said Representative Don Bacon, who would otherwise reject another stopgap.

The House Freedom Caucus has instead urged Johnson to pass a continuing resolution for the remainder of 2024 that would trigger a 1% across-the-board spending cut under a 2023 deal between Biden and Johnson's predecessor, Kevin McCarthy.

Republican Senator Rick Scott, a staunch conservative, favors the same approach, but with U.S. aid to Israel included, along with a full-year defense appropriations bill to protect the Pentagon from spending cuts.

Representative Kelly Armstrong thinks most lawmakers will support the emerging appropriations legislation and avoid a shutdown. But he also sounded a note of skepticism.

"It's 2024, and it's Congress, so we'll see," the North Dakota Republican said. "I've been through enough of this to know that until the ink is dry, I can't guarantee anything."

(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone)

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