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Lawmakers don’t want any more government shutdowns; they just can’t agree on how to prevent them

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Lawmakers don’t want any more government shutdowns; they just can’t agree on how to prevent them

WASHINGTON – Members of Congress agree on one thing: They don’t want any more government shutdowns. They just can’t agree on how to stop them for good.

Ahead of Friday’s deadline to prevent a second government shutdown, a bipartisan group of lawmakers reached a tentative deal on border security that would include $1.375 billion for fencing – well below President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lawmakers have been eager to prevent a repeat of the longest shutdown in history that ended last month. The 35-day lapse brought hardship to 800,000 federal workers who went unpaid for weeks. It also took a hefty financial toll on contractors and owners of small businesses such as restaurants and hair salons that rely on federal workers.

That has stirred renewed interest on Capitol Hill in legislation that would permanently avoid government shutdowns. 

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, compared the sudden surge in support to the comic character Pogo.

“Remember when Pogo looked in the mirror and said: “The enemy was us’? That’s what has happened,” Isakson said.

The Georgia Republican has backed a bill being pushed by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would end government shutdowns. If Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on spending bills for the following year, automatic spending at the current level would kick in. After four months, there would be a 1 percent reduction across the board. That would happen again every 90 days, with the aim of bringing pressure on lawmakers to reach a deal.

Portman has been pushing the bill for years, but lately, he said he senses greater momentum – at least for the broad idea.

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“I’m very encouraged because I’ve never seen more support for ending shutdowns. It’s bipartisan now. Republicans and Democrats alike have learned from this last shutdown,” Portman told USA TODAY after the government reopened last month.

To exert pressure on Congress, Portman said across-the-board cuts would hit both sides where it hurts. Republicans are resistant cuts to the Defense Department and Democrats would not want to see social programs lose money.

Including Portman, the bill now has 33 sponsors. So far, they’re all Republicans. That is problematic in a chamber that requires bipartisanship, and 60 votes, for legislation to move.

Democrats worry that fiscal hardliners would be content to allow reduced government spending over time.

“I think there are a lot of Republicans who would like to run government like that for the next 10 years,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “I’m not a subscriber of that.”

Portman has been talking with his colleague Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, who also has a bill that would end government shutdowns. The pair are trying to find common ground.

Warner’s legislation would require automatic funding to kick in if Congress couldn’t come to a deal. If lawmakers remained at a standstill for a year, government funding would increase in line with growth in gross domestic product. That’s a non-starter for many Republicans who want to rein in government spending, not increase it.

But Warner said he doesn’t think an impasse would last that long. That’s because, under the legislation, while Congress negotiates, paychecks for the president, lawmakers and their immediate staff would be withheld. 

A group of Democratic freshman introduced a similar measure that would keep the government operating at ongoing levels, while targeting just the executive branch and members of Congress as time goes on.

“If Congress and the president can’t agree on spending, the burden shouldn’t fall on federal workers and their families – it should fall on leaders in Washington,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan said.

Related:

Trump signs measure to temporarily reopen government, setting up new battle over border wall

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Although Hoyer said he has “reservations” about many of the bills being discussed, several other House and Senate leaders have broadly endorsed ending government shutdowns permanently. But they have not rallied behind a particular plan.

“I’d be open to anything that we could agree on, on a bipartisan basis, that would make them pretty hard to occur. Again there’s some differences on how to craft that, but I’m certainly open to it,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last month.

There are also more narrow pieces of legislation that wouldn’t outright stop shutdowns, but would try to blunt their impact.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., introduced legislation that would allow federal workers affected by the shutdown to tap their retirement funds without penalty.

“I think that the fact that you have federal employees that are being victimized by partisan politics is really awful,” Graves said.

After the government reopened last month, some lawmakers sought to have a permanent end to shutdowns included in the border security negotiations that led to this week’s tentative deal.

But House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a member of the bipartisan conference committee tasked with finding a compromise on border security, is not a fan of the idea.

Lowey, D-N.Y., said that while such proposals were “well-intentioned,” automatic spending mechanisms would “weaken Congress’ power of the purse, shift power to the president, and make it much harder to fund investments important to working families.”

Even if Congress were to agree on way forward and find a vehicle for such a compromise, there are legal questions about docking lawmakers’ pay.

“Members are offering show amendments to not take pay during the shutdown, but unfortunately the 27th amendment of the Constitution would prohibit that from going into effect before the next election,” said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute.

Contributing: Deborah Berry

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/02/12/government-shutdown-2019-congress-end-shutdowns-permanently/2841014002/

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