After keeping the government open through a series of stopgap bills since last summer, and letting funding lapse for three days last month, on Wednesday it seemed that Congress had finally made a breakthrough. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer reached a budget deal that included wins for both parties. The spending caps Congress enacted in 2011 would be raised by $296 billion through 2019. Republicans would get to make the Pentagon’s already tremendous budget even bigger, with $160 billion for military and State Department operations. That would be accompanied by a non-defense spending increase of about $131 billion, including money for items like disaster relief, community health centers, and infrastructure. Even better, the deal would suspend the debt limit until March 2019, putting off another hairy deadline.
At midday on Thursday, the bill’s passage in the Senate seemed almost certain. Getting the legislation out of the House before the midnight shutdown deadline was more iffy, with Democrats and members of the House Freedom Caucus suggesting they might oppose it. But overall, the odds of the government staying open looked good.
Then Senator Rand Paul decided C-SPAN could use a ratings boost. With hours to go before the deadline, Paul took advantage of rules that let individual senators slow down proceedings, demanding a vote on an amendment to keep the budget caps in place. If leaders did not agree, he threatened to delay a procedural vote past the midnight deadline.
While most Republicans have decided they don’t care about their fiscal ideology now that Barack Obama isn’t president, Paul objected to the bill’s massive spending increases.
“The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” Paul said. “I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, ‘How come you were against President Obama’s deficits and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?’”
He succeeded in his quest to make D.C. uncomfortable. Shortly after 11 p.m., the Senate recessed until 12:01 a.m. without passing the spending bill, meaning the government will officially shutdown – at least briefly – for the second time in three weeks. Senator Ted Cruz, who knows a thing or two about shutdowns, happened to be presiding over the chamber at the time.
The Senate is expected to vote on the spending bill early on Friday morning, so the latest shutdown may be brief.