Democrats in Washington have softened their early opposition to the Republicans’ tiered approach to government spending, signaling a new openness to supporting the House GOP bill and averting a government shutdown at week’s end.
In a Monday letter to House Democrats, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and his top deputies suggested that Democrats may support the Republicans’ short-term funding bill to keep the government open into early next year — a sharp change of tone that could pave the way for easy passage when the bill hits the chamber floor on Tuesday.
Joined by Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), Jeffries stopped short of saying party leaders are ready to endorse the GOP proposal, known as a continuing resolution (CR), which was introduced by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) over the weekend.
But he also didn’t rule it out.
“At this time, we are carefully evaluating the proposal set forth by Republican leadership and discussing it with Members,” Jeffries wrote.
House Democratic leaders huddled Monday night in Jeffries’ office to discuss their CR strategy. Emerging from that meeting, Jeffries declined to say whether he’s ready to throw his support behind the GOP bill, but some other Democratic lawmakers predicted that the only way to prevent a shutdown is for Democrats to jump on board.
“That’s not the expectation, it’s the reality,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a 21-year veteran of Capitol Hill. But he also put the burden on Democratic leaders to explain to rank-and-file members what the party would get from Republicans in return.
“If we’re buying time, fine. But what are we buying time for?” he asked. “And that question needs to be answered by our leadership.”
Democratic support will be crucial, because a number of conservative Republicans are already vowing to oppose the measure to protest the absence of sharp spending cuts — a number large enough to sink the bill without help from across the aisle.
There are also questions about whether Johnson has enough Republican support to bring the CR to a final vote, since several of the GOP opponents are also vowing to oppose the rule that would typically precede final passage.
“I don’t think they have the votes to pass the rule,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the senior Democrat on the powerful Rules Committee.
Democrats could make up the difference and help Republicans pass the rule, as they did earlier in the year to solidify passage of a debt ceiling hike. But Jeffries made clear Monday that this debate is different and the burden will be on Johnson to produce the rule votes.
“We have zero intention to vote for the rule,” Jeffries said.
If the rule can’t pass, GOP leaders would be forced to bring the bill to the floor by an alternative method, known as a suspension vote, that would require two-thirds of voting lawmakers to approve the bill — a high bar, but one easily surpassed if Democratic leaders rally their troops behind the legislation.
Both parties are scheduled to meet separately behind closed doors on Tuesday morning in the Capitol to finalize their strategies, with both sides hoping to avoid a shutdown just before the Thanksgiving holiday — and the political blame that would come with it.
The House Democrats’ new letter marks a sharp change of tone from just last week, when Democratic leaders had skewered Republicans for floating a “laddered” budget approach, which carves government funding into separate pots to be considered on different timetables.
Jeffries had characterized the idea as “another extreme right-wing policy joyride … that would only crash and burn the federal government.”
“It’s a nonstarter,” he said Thursday during his weekly press briefing.
And the Biden administration piled on after Johnson unveiled legislation on Saturday, accusing Republicans of “wasting precious time with an unserious proposal.”
That opposition, however, focused squarely on Johnson’s unusual procedural approach — a two-tiered plan that would extend some agency funding into January, and the remainder into February — rather than the substance of the spending.
And Johnson’s proposal is in many ways advantageous to Democrats.
It keeps government funding largely at current, fiscal year 2023 levels. It avoids the steep cuts the Speaker’s conservative wing is demanding. And it excludes the thorny policy riders on issues like border security and abortion that have provided Democrats with an easy rationale for opposing GOP spending bills in the past.
Democratic leaders, in their letter, had cited all three of those items as major factors in determining how Democrats will vote when the package hits the floor.
“House Democrats are focused on keeping the government open while urging our Republican colleagues to work together in a bipartisan manner to lower costs, grow the middle class and protect our national security,” he wrote. “We will proceed this week through the lens of making progress for everyday Americans by continuing to put people over politics.”
House Democrats were not alone in softening their tone on the Johnson proposal on Monday. Earlier in the day, President Biden had declined to say he would veto the legislation if it reaches as far as his desk.
And across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered a similar message on Monday afternoon, praising Johnson for proposing a “clean” CR, absent “poison pills,” and urging the Speaker to resist changes at the behest of his right flank, which would erode potential Democratic support.
“For now, I am pleased that Speaker Johnson seems to be moving in our direction by advancing a CR that doesn’t include the highly partisan cuts that Democrats have warned against,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Without congressional action, large parts of the federal government are scheduled to shut down at the end of the day on Friday.
Updated at 9:29 p.m.