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How the White House got to yes on an ‘unserious’ government funding proposal

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On Saturday evening, the White House trashed a proposed House Republican government funding bill as “unserious” and a “recipe” for “chaos and more shutdowns.”

Within 72 hours, Biden officials quietly informed Democratic allies on the Hill that the president would support the measure and it sailed through the House.

The administration’s dramatic about face all but assured that the plan — which funds the government in two tranches into January and February — would make it into law. And, sure enough, on Tuesday night, the bill passed the House with the support of 209 Democrats. The Senate is expected to take up the measure this week and clear it comfortably before Saturday’s shutdown deadline.

“If it passes the Senate, the president will sign this continuing resolution that maintains current funding levels and has no harmful policy riders,” a White House official said shortly after the bill passed the House, 336-95.

The change of tune was driven by an acknowledgement that the House plan was likely to provide the closest thing to a victory for Democrats: averting not only a government shutdown but also steep cuts in funding.

Having entered into their first high-stakes negotiations with a new and untested House speaker, Democrats quietly feared that Republicans would demand a dramatic standoff. Instead, the process seemed likely to end in a relative whimper — and the lights would stay on.

“The initial reaction was: It keeps chaos going. Which it does,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Democratic leader. “Then we started thinking about it. And what would happen if this didn’t pass.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t hard compromises for Biden and allied Democrats to swallow. The deal again leaves out the White House’s chief legislative priority: a nearly $106 billion defense supplemental that would fund aid to Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific.

The White House’s chief concern — matching that of congressional Democrats — was a potentially complex system of multiple funding deadlines, which Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) last week called “the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

But Speaker Mike Johnson’s proposal, once the text came out Saturday, only had two deadlines. While White House officials and Democrats grumbled that the “goofy” two-tiered system increased the chance of shutdowns in the future because it kicks the can again — with two deadlines, to boot. Yet it wasn’t enough of a reason to oppose the bill now. Stabenow speculated the two deadlines were included “so the speaker could tell his most extreme members that they would have other opportunities to cause problems.”

Biden administration officials acknowledged the bill is not what they would have proposed, but it keeps the government open and averts spending cuts, according to an administration official granted anonymity to discuss strategy. Yet, the White House was also not eager to come out strongly for a bill that didn’t contain its defense supplemental priorities, the official added, saying that a strong show of support from Biden also could have risked passage in the House by galvanizing Republicans against it.

In the end, only two House Democrats opposed the bill, a point of unity that pleased the White House, particularly as the vote sharply divided House Republicans. While 127 Republicans supported, 93 opposed.

After issuing the statement of opposition to the House bill on Saturday evening, the most substantive public comment the White House would make afterward was that it was staying in touch with counterparts on the Hill and eager to avoid a shutdown. The White House did not even issue a Statement of Administration Policy on the bill declaring what action the president would be advised to take on the measure. That’s unusual for high-profile legislation, although the administration does not issue them for bills passed under the fast-track procedure House Republican leadership used to get around conservative opposition.

“To the White House’s credit, they took a look at it, thought about it, and said ‘Okay, yeah, this is what we want to support,’” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Once it became clear that the defense supplemental would not be included on the funding bill, “it was very smart of the White House to recognize the futility of that approach and to pivot to something that is at least possible,” Smith said.

Privately, administration officials, including OMB Director Shalanda Young and those from the Office of Legislative Affairs, were in touch with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer through the weekend.

The first inkling of the White House’s about face came Tuesday morning, when Schumer indicated he’d spoken to top White House officials about their concerns. Schumer said he and the White House agreed “that if this can avoid a shutdown, it’ll be a good thing.”

The fast-moving legislation and lack of clear direction from the White House led to some uncertainty about the bill’s fate.

“My guess is that the White House doesn’t like this. I don’t think that’s changed. But if it ends up getting a bunch of Democratic votes in the House and the Senate, I would imagine the White House is not going to veto it,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday morning.

Some Senate Democrats were still trying to figure out how they would vote on the measure. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said he was “inclined” to support the bill when it came to the Senate.

“Obviously I would be concerned given where it’s coming from [in the House]. But if it is a clean CR that allows us to get more time to address all these things and we’re not spending the week before Thanksgiving arguing?” Fetterman said. “We should never be in a place where we’re arguing that it’s on the table that you could shut things down.”

The question now facing Democrats and the White House is what they can do to move the president’s foreign aid request forward. The next time partial government funding will run out is on Jan. 19, and there are no legislative deadlines that could prompt action before then.

Republican Ukraine supporters expressed little concern about kicking the can. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate now has “January and into February to get the job done, and that’s what we hope to be able to accomplish.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) expressed even more optimism: “We hope to get it all done by the end of the year.”

A White House official said the administration and Democratic leaders made clear to Republicans how much they prioritize the defense supplemental.

Schumer, for his part, indicated the Senate would address the defense supplemental shortly after the chamber returns from Thanksgiving.

But the bill still faces the same tough politics. Conservative opposition to funding Ukraine has grown deeper and Republicans have inextricably linked border policy with Ukraine — a move that’s setting up tough negotiations.

On Tuesday, Democrats, however, said they felt they were playing the hand they were dealt as best as they could.

“We’re living in a world of crazy,” Murphy said. “At some point, you have to cut weird deals with arsonists. And that’s where we are.”