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Shutdowns and Bipartisanship in a Divided Congress

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With the threat of a federal government shutdown looming, the divided US Congress acted on November 15 to pass a stopgap spending bill that will keep the government operational through the beginning of 2024. The deal came after a tumultuous few weeks in Congress that saw the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the ensuing scuffle to elect a replacement.

While Congress averted a shutdown for now, budget battles that will require bipartisanship agreement lie ahead for lawmakers in 2024. We asked SIS professor Jordan Tama to answer a few questions about the state of bipartisanship in the split Congress and discuss what challenges lawmakers will face in the new year.

The last few weeks in Congress have been nothing short of historic in terms of uncertainty and chaos. Between the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) and the protracted struggle that followed to elect his replacement, Congress spent weeks spinning its wheels with a shutdown deadline looming. Fortunately, the divided Congress was able to find enough common ground to pass a stopgap funding bill late on November 15, averting a government shutdown until early 2024. What does the passage of this bill tell us about the state of bipartisanship in Congress?
Passage of the bill tells us that bipartisanship is still possible in Congress. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La) decided to rebuff the insistence of his right-wing colleagues that the bill include spending cuts, and this enabled Democrats to come on board in support of the legislation. Democrats and Republicans are also cooperating on some important foreign policy issues, even as American politics grow more and more divisive. On China, both parties think the US should take an array of steps to counter the country’s rise and enhance US competitiveness. On Israel and Ukraine, bipartisan coalitions coexist with intraparty divisions.
Maintaining bipartisanship is often very difficult, though, because politicians and interest groups frequently have an incentive to politicize them. When Donald Trump attacks a Biden administration policy, it becomes more difficult for Republicans to work together with Democrats on that issue. Advocacy groups also sometimes pressure politicians to follow a particular orthodoxy. This is happening now on US policy on global health. For 20 years, there has been strong bipartisan support for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a critically important initiative that has saved millions of lives in poor countries. Now anti-abortion groups are pressuring Republicans to oppose the program’s reauthorization based on concern that some of the funding goes through non-governmental organizations that provide family planning services in recipient countries. This politicization is causing the debate on the issue to become polarized.
The funding bill passed by Congress is a two-step measure—one part extends funding for veterans programs, transportation, housing, agriculture, and energy until January 19; the second part extends funding for additional appropriations, including defense spending, until February 2, according to CBS News. This deal essentially punts the funding battle in Congress to 2024. What do you anticipate the budget battles in Congress looking like in the new year? What spending issues are keeping Democrats and Republicans divided? What issues are dividing the GOP caucus among themselves?
In the near term, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Congress is likely to consider the Biden administration’s spending proposal to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, as well as humanitarian assistance for Gaza. MAGA Republicans in the House want to strip out the Ukraine and humanitarian aid portions of this package, but Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate are close to an agreement that would include all of these elements. This should come to a head during the coming weeks.
Looking further ahead, the main budget battle in the new year will be over overall government spending. Right-wing Republicans in the House will renew their push to cut spending, and the Biden administration and congressional Democrats will strongly oppose such cuts. How this plays out is anyone’s guess at this point, but it’s likely that Mike Johnson will again need to decide whether to accept a deal that disappoints the right-wing of his party or to hold firm to a position that Democrats and the Senate are unwilling to accept.
Notably, the two-part spending plan passed by Congress on Wednesday does not include additional funding for Israel and Ukraine. In your newly released book, Bipartisanship and US Foreign Policy, you discuss how, in an era of increased polarization, Democrats and Republicans cooperate more on foreign policy than on domestic policy. Why has funding for the war in Ukraine caused a divide between Republicans and Democrats? Does this come as a surprise? Do you anticipate any disagreements over funding to aid Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza?
The key fault line in the US debate over the war in Ukraine is now within the Republican Party, rather than between Democrats and Republicans. Internationalist Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and presidential candidate Nikki Haley, continue to strongly support US aid to Ukraine as a means of protecting democracy and standing up to Russian aggression. The MAGA wing of the GOP, led by Trump and including politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga) and Vivek Ramaswamy, calls for ending US aid to Ukraine and focusing on securing the US border instead. McConnell and internationalist Republicans are working quite closely with the Biden administration and congressional Democrats on the issue but are sharply at odds with their own Republican MAGA colleagues.
A similar dynamic is playing out on US policy toward the Israel-Hamas war. Most Democrats and Republicans support Israel’s right to defend itself and favor aid to Israel, but the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is opposing Israel aid and calling for a cease-fire. In other words, on this issue too, a key fault line lies within one of the parties, rather than between them.
My book shows that such political constellations are typical in foreign policy debates. Bipartisan unity over foreign policy is rare today in Washington, but many foreign policy debates are marked by a combination of cooperation across party lines and divisions within one or both parties. In other words, the political landscape on foreign policy is more nuanced than notions of either polarization or unity would suggest.
Newly-elected House Speaker Mike Johnson—like his predecessor Kevin McCarthy—had to rely on Democratic votes to get his two-part spending plan passed in the House. This used to be standard bipartisan governing, but in the current climate, successful bipartisan efforts are demonized by some in the GOP caucus. What challenges lie ahead for Johnson as manages pressure from a fractured Republican caucus and a slim majority in the House?
Johnson finds himself in the same predicament that has bedeviled every Republican Speaker of the House since the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 election: how to satisfy the right-wing of the GOP caucus and govern effectively at the same time. Among right-wing Republicans, it is now orthodoxy that cooperating with Democrats is to be avoided. But Republicans cannot pass legislation, particularly at a time when a Democrat is in the White House and Democrats control the Senate, without working with Democrats. Therefore, the only path to approving a government budget and addressing other issues is to bring forward legislation that gets support from Democrats as well as Republicans.
In the recent House vote on the stopgap funding bill, more Democrats than Republicans backed the legislation. MAGA Republicans let Johnson get away with this bipartisan approach because he has strong right-wing credentials generally and is enjoying something of a honeymoon period with his colleagues. But they will start giving him a very hard time if he continues to legislate that way, and the short tenures of the last several Republican House Speakers suggest that the effort to balance the need to govern with the need to placate the party’s right wing is likely to become untenable for Johnson before too long.