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Congress races to avoid a shutdown

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Congress may manage to avert what seemed inevitable just a few hours ago, a government shutdown that would have started just after midnight. At least lawmakers are part of the way there. After a chaotic day on Capitol Hill with the House and the Senate dueling over when to vote, the House of Representatives has approved a short-term spending bill. And if that government shutdown is avoided, many will breathe a sigh of relief, including, one would guess, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. I spoke with her yesterday as a potential shutdown loomed, and I asked her what it would mean for the U.S. economy.

JANET YELLEN: So, it’s really reckless and will impose immediate harm, which will intensify over time.

GURA: Those economic and political consequences weighed heavily on lawmakers, again, because the deadline is just hours away. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made a surprising reversal. After weeks of insisting any spending bill had to appeal to hard-line conservatives, he announced a new plan and asked House Democrats for their help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: What I am asking Republicans and Democrats alike - put your partisanship away. Focus on the American public.

GURA: Let's dig deeper into what happened today and what it could mean going forward. I'm joined by NPR political reporter Ximena Bustillo and NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. We're going to get to what this means in just a second, but, Ximena, it was a wild day up on Capitol Hill with a lot of back-and-forth about who would go first. I understand someone pulled a fire alarm at one point. Give us a sense of what it's been like at the Capitol today.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: It was definitely a little bit of a chaotic vibe. We had a conference meeting of the Republicans this morning as they all gathered to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But as they all trickled out, there really was not a complete sense of what the plan was, you know, coming out of that meeting. We heard different combinations of different lengths of time that there could be an extension of funding, different details. And it really wasn't until McCarthy himself announced the 45-day extension that the House ultimately did pass that we knew that that was going to be the plan. But then there was the question of, you know, would Democrats go for this?

GURA: So that was the vibe. Deirdre, I mentioned this a minute ago, but after weeks of trying to get these hard-liners to come on board, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy changed course rather suddenly. Why was that? Was it just deadline pressure, pure and simple?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: It was that but the fact that he couldn't pass anything. Time after time, he gave in to the demands from the conservative members on the far right of his conference, but they kept blocking his efforts. I mean, they embarrassed him yesterday with taking down his own bill. Twenty-one of them defected. Moderates from his own swing districts were feeling that political pressure that you mentioned, and they kept warning how bad a shutdown was going to be for the party.

I think it was really just a matter of when, not if McCarthy would go to the Democrats. Getting ahead of the shutdown was better politically for those vulnerable members. Remember, he only has a four-seat majority in the House, and he wants to keep it in the next election. Also, by pushing a continuing resolution that has current funding levels but taking Ukraine out, he was able to really sort of shift the political narrative. Democrats could agree and also get the disaster money that a lot of them want, or the fight over shutting down the government would end up being about Ukraine.

GURA: Deirdre, you mentioned that margin, which is so slim I can count it on one hand. What did the House speaker say about his prospects when he talked to reporters after this vote?

WALSH: I mean, he clearly knows that there is a threat to oust him. Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz has vowed to bring a resolution to the floor. You only need one member to do that. He basically said, if you want to take me out for being the adult in the room, go ahead and do it. I mean, House Republicans expect a vote - many believe it will happen by the end of the year - to get rid of McCarthy. A lot of these hard-liners said, if you work with Democrats, we don't want you to be the speaker anymore. That vote could happen, basically, as soon as Monday. The one thing that McCarthy has going for him is he did get a majority of his own members to back this bill, so that helps him respond to those who say he's not listening.

GURA: Ximena, what did it take for House Democrats to get on board with this last-ditch effort?

BUSTILLO: So 90 Republicans did vote against the bill, which is notable mostly just because in his last effort to pass something to keep the government funding, he lost Republicans on that plan, and so this was more. The last plan, he only lost 21 hard-line Republicans. This went up to 90. However, as Deirdre did mention, most Republicans did vote for the plan. But at the end of the day, this bill passed because 209 Democrats got on board, and he passed the bill with their ability to do that.

GURA: Deirdre, we've got 45 days, if this passes, before we're back in the same place just before Thanksgiving. What is your sense of how the political landscape changes or would change between now and then?

WALSH: I mean, I could see us back in the same place in 45 days. I mean, Republicans are going to try to keep passing their individual spending bills. They've had a lot of fights over those bills. And I think, you know, the big question we're still waiting for is, will McCarthy still be the speaker? Can he hold his members together and argue like, look, we avoided a shutdown. Let's keep negotiating over our broader goals to cut spending? If we keep passing these bills, we can negotiate with the Senate - sort of unclear whether he can keep his members on the same page on that.

GURA: Ximena, very quickly here, do we know anything about the timetable going forward when the Senate might vote on this?

BUSTILLO: Not necessarily. A lot of things are still to be determined. The Senate could vote this evening, as soon as this evening. And that is about as much clarity as we have right now.

GURA: NPR political reporter Ximena Bustillo, where that uncertain vibe continues up on Capitol Hill.

BUSTILLO: Yes.

GURA: And NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, thank you both very much for your time.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.