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Senate returns and faces deadline to avoid shutdown and questions about McConnell

Lawmakers have a narrow window to approve a stopgap funding measure and avoid a possible government shutdown beginning in October. Leaders of the House and Senate say a temporary spending bill is needed to work on yearlong bills.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Lawmakers have a narrow window to approve a stopgap funding measure and avoid a possible government shutdown beginning in October. Leaders of the House and Senate say a temporary spending bill is needed to work on yearlong bills.

Lawmakers return this week with one pressing challenge this month — avoiding a potential government shutdown.

The Senate is back Tuesday to sort out the next steps on crafting a short-term funding bill that can pass before federal agencies run out of money on Sept. 30. But talk of the health of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., following another episode when he froze at a press conference last week, will also dominate Capitol Hill.

House members return a week later, leaving a narrow window for both chambers to finalize and pass a bill to at least temporarily fund federal agencies, but the two chambers are still far apart on what should be included in a continuing resolution or "CR."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have both said they support passing a CR through sometime this fall to allow more time for Congress to negotiate long-term spending bills.

"Honestly, it's a pretty big mess," McConnell said at an event in Kentucky last week when asked about the prospect for a government shutdown.

He predicted Congress could pass a short-term bill, even amid fights over the long-term spending levels. McCarthy and House Republicans have insisted on spending cuts that would violate an existing agreement that McCarthy struck with President Biden during the fight over the debt limit.

In a letter to his Senate colleagues, Schumer warned about the gulf between the Senate and House spending bills: "We cannot afford the brinkmanship or hostage-taking we saw from House Republicans earlier this year when they pushed our country to the brink of default to appease the most extreme members of their party."

The Biden administration last week publicly pushed for a CR, and released a detailed list of items it wanted to be part of any spending stopgap package.

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget told NPR: "Although the crucial work continues to reach a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on fiscal year 2024 appropriations bills, it is clear that a short-term continuing resolution (CR) will be needed next month. As part of our responsibility to prudently plan for a short-term CR, OMB is providing Congress with technical assistance needed to avoid severe disruptions to government services in the first quarter of the fiscal year. We urge Congress to include these anomalies along with the critical emergency supplemental needs the Administration transmitted earlier this month in any forthcoming CR, as they have done on a bipartisan basis many times in the past."

Stopgap funding bill needed to avoid October shutdown

But McCarthy's job is complicated by the recent position taken by the House Freedom Caucus, to issue a series of demands in return for supporting any CR.

The group of far-right conservatives, many of whom rarely support short-term spending bills, are insisting that any bill include three provisions that are likely non-starters for Democrats: the House GOP border security bill, measures to address what House Republicans call the "weaponization" of the Justice Department to prosecute former President Donald Trump and others, and provisions to end what they say are "cancerous woke policies" at the Pentagon.

One conservative member of the House Appropriations committee, Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., announced he would propose an amendment to defund any federal prosecution of any major presidential candidate before an election.

"It is imperative that Congress use its power of the purse to protect the integrity of our elections, restore Americans' faith in our government, and dismantle our nation's two-tiered system of justice," Clyde said in a statement. "I'm fully committed to helping lead this effort."

McCarthy presides over a razor-thin GOP majority, and if he negotiates a deal on a temporary spending bill with Democrats, as he did on the debt ceiling in May, he could face blowback from his right flank that could endanger his position as speaker. Any single lawmaker can propose a "motion to vacate" which would trigger a vote of confidence in McCarthy's leadership.

Sen. John Barrasso, R- Wy., reaches out to help Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after McConnell froze and stopped talking at the microphones during a news conference after a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans U.S. Capitol in late July.  Also pictured, L-R, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R- W.Va., Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., reaches out to help Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after McConnell froze and stopped talking at the microphones during a news conference after a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol in late July.

Questions about McConnell's health

Perhaps the biggest issue looming over the Senate's return this week is the health of McConnell. At a public event in Kentucky last week, he froze for the second time in just over a month. In both instances, his physical health overshadowed other comments he made about government spending, impeachment and the Senate agenda.

McConnell's aides downplayed his physical ailments after both incidents. Most recently they circulated a letter from the attending physician at the Capitol, Dr. Brian Monahan, clearing McConnell to continue with his schedule. Most Senate Republicans have backed McConnell to continue in his leadership role, but as the GOP works to regain control of the chamber in 2024 election there are questions about whether he would remain leader. McConnell also hasn't said if he will run for reelection in 2026.

Disaster aid and money for Ukraine

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that the relief fund was down to roughly $3 billion following a string of natural disasters. The money could be wiped out by the end of September, so there's mounting pressure on Congress to replenish it.

The Biden administration asked for another $4 billion on top of the $12 billion they asked for earlier this summer — before Hurricane Idalia hit southeastern states and the Maui fire's broad impact was assessed.

The administration also asked for $20 billion for Ukraine — for weapons and humanitarian assistance. There's bipartisan support for continuing aid for the war, but a significant bloc of conservatives mostly in the House oppose approving any additional money, so top leaders will face an effort to split it off from disaster money, lower the amount, or attach strings.

House conservatives push to impeach Biden

McCarthy has signaled that the House could move to open an impeachment inquiry of Biden soon. In an interview on Fox News recently McCarthy said launching the probe was a "natural step forward."

This is a sign he's leaning in more as he faces pressure from his right flank. He said in late July if federal agencies fail to hand over materials that committees are requesting that would "rise to the level" of an impeachment inquiry, but stressed he was still waiting for committees to recommend steps. The speaker hasn't given specifics in terms of what information GOP leaders could get that would make them take a step back from impeaching Biden.

It's unclear whether the speaker has the votes to pass a resolution formally kicking off the probe — with his narrow majority he can only afford to lose four votes. Several GOP moderates like Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., have said publicly they weren't there yet and need to see additional evidence to back up a case for any articles of impeachment. The speaker told Breitbarton Friday that he wouldn't move forward without a floor vote, saying, "If we move forward with an impeachment inquiry, it would occur through a vote on the floor of the People's House and not through a declaration by one person."

Trump weighed in recently on his social media platform with a message to House Republicans: "Either IMPEACH the BUM, or fade into OBLIVION."

Artificial intelligence legislation

Schumer has made an aggressive push in recent months to brief lawmakers from both parties on the expected challenges of artificial intelligence technologies. He's scheduled a series of bipartisan sessions, including a classified one focused on national security issues.

Schumer listed AI legislation on his agenda as one item he wants to move this year, but it's unclear what Congress' role would be or what type of new regulations would get bipartisan support. He's scheduled a forum in mid September at the Capitol with top industry leaders like Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, Elon Musk, CEO of X and Tesla, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, as well as other stakeholders from labor, education and civil rights groups.

Farm bill

Lawmakers are also supposed to be preparing to pass a six-year bill to authorize spending and policies around food, agriculture and nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

The current farm bill expires at the end of September. But some, including McConnell, have suggested it could take until the end of the year for Congress to pass a new bill. It is not uncommon for Congress to allow the bill to lapse for a short period of time while final negotiations continue.

NPR's Tamara Keith and Franco Ordonez contributed to this story.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.