Biden, congressional leaders sound optimistic on funding government

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President Biden and congressional leaders appeared to agree Tuesday to press forward to prevent a government shutdown, but in a gathering that one lawmaker called the most intense Oval Office meeting of his career, officials remained divided on U.S. support for Ukraine as Russia begins to make battlefield gains in its two-year-old invasion.

Biden summoned the top four leaders of Congress to the White House in an attempt to steer a deadlocked Congress away from a partial government shutdown that is set to begin at the stroke of midnight Saturday. Even a partial closure would force vital services at the Department of Transportation offline. Food stamp programs could quickly run low on funding. Housing assistance for millions of families would fall into jeopardy. And another, larger government shutdown cliff awaits just a week later, when funds for the Defense and State departments will also expire, unless Congress acts.

“Government funding, I’m sure you guys have all of that all taken care of,” Biden joked to the group Tuesday. “I think that it’s Congress’s responsibility to fund the government. We’ve got to get about doing it. A shutdown would damage the economy significantly. I think we can all agree to that. And we need bipartisan solutions.”

But once the doors closed — and especially when talk moved to Ukraine aid — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters, the session “was one of the most intense I have ever encountered in my many meetings in the Oval Office.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said he hoped that Congress could avert a government shutdown.

“We have been working in good faith around-the-clock every single day for months and weeks. And over the last several days, quite literally around-the-clock to get that job done,” Johnson said. “We’re very optimistic. I hope that the other leaders came out here and told you the same. We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown, and that’s our first responsibility.”

In Ukraine, the situation is far more dire, lawmakers and national security officials say. Commanders there have begun ordering troops to ration munitions in the nation’s fight against Russia’s invasion. Without U.S. defense assistance, experts say, Russia will probably be able to turn the tide of the war, which has been mired in a stalemate for months. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces already captured the former Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka this month, a battle in which a lack of U.S.-provided arms proved decisive, officials say.

“In Ukraine, the need is urgent. I hope we get to speak to that a little bit,” Biden said. “I think the consequences of inaction every day in Ukraine are dire.”

Schumer hit the same message on the Senate floor Monday.

“In less than a week, the federal government will begin to shut down unless both sides — both sides — work together to extend funding,” he said. “Meanwhile, the moral obligation for Congress to help the people of Ukraine and fortify our own national security grows heavier with each passing day.”

The twin spending debates have ground Congress to a standstill in recent weeks. House and Senate budget negotiators are struggling to cinch a deal to fund the departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Energy — the agencies whose funding is set to expire this weekend.

Schumer and Johnson backed off a plan Sunday to release legislative text of that deal amid continued policy disputes on a range of issues, such as anti-hunger assistance and access to firearms.

The two leaders have already agreed broadly on how much the government should spend on discretionary programs this fiscal year — $1.7 trillion — and on roughly how to allocate it among Cabinet departments, but the final details are proving tougher to nail down.

President Biden met with House and Senate leaders at the White House on Feb. 27, urging emergency aid to Ukraine and Israel and to keep the government open. (Video: Billy Tucker/The Washington Post)

In the latest round of talks, Senate Democrats have requested an additional $1 billion for the federal food assistance program for women, infants and children, known as WIC. The program has seen an enrollment surge since the start of 2023, drawing down federal funds faster than anticipated, experts say. Biden requested the $1 billion to plug that gap.

In exchange for that funding, House Republicans — led by the chief agriculture bill negotiator, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), an anesthesiologist — want changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The proposal would launch a pilot program that would restrict participants’ purchases to “nutrient dense” items, according to a person familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fragile negotiations.

“It’s no secret Dr. Harris would like to see the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program returned to what it was originally authorized in Congress to do,” a spokesperson for Harris said in a statement, “which is to ‘safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households.’”

Such a policy is anathema to Democrats and anti-hunger activists.

“People have different nutrient needs. We aren’t all the same. People know for themselves what kind of food is best for their families,” said Allison Johnson, campaign director of the advocacy group ParentsTogether Action. “Trying to micromanage what families buy is going to backfire.”

Some Democrats are also fighting a policy provision that was included in spending bills that passed both chambers of Congress that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from limiting veterans’ rights to own or purchase firearms if they also need help managing their federal benefits.

“I still think it’s a terrible idea and will get a lot of veterans killed,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Washington Post on Monday.

An agreement to fund the rest of the federal government — roughly 80 percent of discretionary spending — is still a ways off, negotiators say. The deadline for the larger tranche is a week later, and a shutdown would begin after midnight on March 9.

“Shutting down the government is harmful to the country, and it never produces positive outcomes on either policy or politics,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Monday. “What’s more, a shutdown this week is entirely avoidable. The Senate passed full-year appropriations for each of these important areas four months ago, and our House colleagues have produced full-year legislation of their own. We have the means and just enough time this week to avoid a shutdown and make serious headway on annual appropriations. But as always, the task at hand will require that everyone rows in the same direction toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.”

The Senate in early February reached a bipartisan agreement to pair $60 billion of funding for Ukraine with broad new immigration restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans in the upper chamber, who broadly support Ukraine funding, unlike their House colleagues, demanded that arrangement before greenlighting the Ukraine assistance. But former president Donald Trump opposed the deal, and Senate Republicans flipped and followed suit — casting the future of American support for Ukraine in grave doubt. In the House, Johnson declared the Senate bill a nonstarter, too.

“What the president wants to see is we want to make sure that the national security interests of the American people get put first, it is not used as a political football. We want to make sure that gets done,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday. “And we also want to see that the government does not get shut down. It is a basic, basic priority or duty of Congress to keep the government open.”

Biden and his top aides have said the foreign aid bill would easily pass the House if Johnson would bring it up for a floor vote. All the other leaders in the room have supported the bill, but the speaker could face a challenge to his leadership from the far-right wing of the House if he put Ukraine aid to a vote — a dynamic that has frustrated the White House and even Senate Republicans.

“Part of his job is to bring good, positive legislation that’s important to the country. This legislation is important to the country,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Tuesday. “He can either be a leader, or he can do his best to keep his job but not get anything done.”

The foreign aid bill also includes $14 billion for Israel to replenish its military defenses against Hamas. But Biden was more careful when speaking of that funding, seeming to try to quell the opposition from many House Democrats to sending unconditional aid to Israel as it carries out its scorched-earth campaign in Gaza.

“We need to turn to the supplemental. We need to deal with the Israelis,” Biden said. “But that also contains a significant portion having to do with humanitarian assistance in the Palestinian area, which I think is important.”

Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.

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