Caution tape blows in the wind on the east front plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 27, 2023. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., continues to have difficulty finding a legislative path that would prevent the federal government from partially shutting down at midnight on Sept. 30 and would also not jeopardize his speakership.

Caution tape blows in the wind on the east front plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 27, 2023. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., continues to have difficulty finding a legislative path that would prevent the federal government from partially shutting down at midnight on Sept. 30 and would also not jeopardize his speakership. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Agencies ramp up shutdown prep as Congress hurtles toward deadline

The White House has kicked off official shutdown planning efforts.

The Biden administration is taking initial steps to prepare for a government shutdown as the House and Senate remain deeply divided on a plan to keep agencies afloat past the current Sept. 30 deadline. 

The White House initiated a shutdown planning call with agency leaders on Friday, according to an Office of Management and Budget official. Those leaders are now beginning to lay out their procedures if an appropriations lapse occurs and employees begin facing furloughs this weekend. 

Those plans appear increasingly likely to be effectuated as House Republicans are voicing an unwillingness to approve a short-term spending bill the Senate is working to pass to avert a shutdown. That measure, in addition to about $12 billion for Ukraine aid and disaster relief funding, would keep agencies afloat at their current funding levels through Nov. 17 and has wide bipartisan backing in the upper chamber. In a preliminary procedural vote Tuesday evening, the Senate advanced the continuing resolution 77-19. 

By Wednesday morning, however, House Republican leadership already said the measure, as currently constructed, was dead on arrival in the lower chamber. While the bill would likely pass easily with Democratic support if it were put to a vote, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has intimated he would not do so. 

House Republicans are instead working on their own version of a CR, the details of which are still being negotiated. They had at least initially planned to vote on a measure that would slash funding at agencies besides the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs by 8% for the length of the stopgap bill and institute border security and restrictive immigration policies, but it is unclear if leadership has the votes for such a bill since all Democrats are likely to oppose it. McCarthy can only afford to lose a few votes from his own caucus without any Democratic support and many have threatened to vote against any CR. 

The speaker could also take up the Senate’s bill and amend it to include Republican border policies, though—even if he could pass it—the upper chamber would likely reject the changes. With just four days until a shutdown, that would leave the Congress unlikely to come up with a solution that would keep agencies from shuttering. 

‘Working through’ shutdown plans

With OMB officially kicking off shutdown preparations, agencies are now finalizing their operations plans for such a lapse taking place. That will include which activities will continue and which employees will be sent home on furlough. According to a Government Executive analysis of the most recent data, the Biden administration plans to furlough about 737,000, or 34%, of civilian federal employees. The remaining 1.4 million workers would continue to report for duty on only the promise of back pay. 

OMB will soon instruct agencies to inform employees whether they are furloughed, though those conversations already started informally at agencies across government. 

“Teams are working through the finer points of that right now,” Transportation Department Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters on Wednesday, referring to exactly who would face furloughs. 

He noted some employees may face furloughs initially and then be forced to come back if a shutdown drags on, as more work will reach a crisis stage. 

“We have already been in sessions where we started to see the breakdowns of how that works,” Buttigieg said. 

At a hearing on Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan laid out for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee how EPA’s shutdown plans are taking shape. Inspections at hazardous waste facilities and Superfund sites would be suspended, as well as those aimed at maintaining clean water and air. EPA is planning to keep staff available to respond to emergencies, but work to get new products such as pesticides and herbicides onto the market would cease. EPA is taking a different approach than the Trump administration did during a shutdown in 2018, when the agency initially used "carry-over funds" to avoid furloughing any staff 

“A lot of essential work will begin to slow down,” Regan said. “I have grave concerns about a potential shutdown.” 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, like the rest of the Homeland Security Department, is largely exempt from a shutdown due to the nature of its work, has already started withholding funding for long-term projects to avoid running out of cash in its Disaster Relief Fund. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday the total delayed funding in FEMA grants has already reached $2.8 billion. 

The White House warned on Wednesday that previous shutdowns have led to increased disruptions in air travel. While air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration screeners work during shutdowns, they do so without immediate pay and absenteeism could arise as an issue. Callouts at TSA began to spike as the record-setting 2018-2019 shutdown dragged on. 

“Our people are pros, they come in, they do what's required of them, but they're also human beings and the pressure that they're under grows and mounts each passing day that you're in this scenario,” Buttigieg said. “And so the only thing that is even more certain than the harms of a shutdown is that those harms will compound each passing day that you go into that.”

The White House also cautioned that a shutdown would pause training for new air traffic controllers that both Democrats and Republicans have said are desperately needed. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said it is actively discussing with Federal Aviation Administration officials which employees will face furloughs. 

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, called on House Republicans to “stop playing games with people’s lives” and approve the Senate stopgap bill. Many Senate Republicans issued similar requests. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told his colleagues they cannot make any progress if the “basic functions of government end up being taken hostage.” 

“We can take the standard approach and fund the government for six weeks at the current rate of operations or we can shut the government down in exchange for zero meaningful progress on policy,” McConnell said, adding a shutdown was not “an effective way to make a point.” 

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., echoed that even from an operational perspective, a shutdown was antithetical to House Republicans’ stated goals. 

Border agents and officers “depend on some folks that are contractors in that area, to help sometimes with transportation, with processing, with food, with medical care, all those things,” Lankford said on the Senate floor recently. “When there’s a government shutdown, those contractors aren’t going to be there. And the chaotic border that we have now, will be even more chaotic at that moment.”

House Republicans, however, said they would not pass a CR without additional border security measures. McCarthy may be reluctant to put a “clean” stopgap on the floor as conservative lawmakers have threatened to force a vote to oust him from his speakership if he cooperates with Democrats. 

“How can they pass a CR that funds Biden’s open border process and call that a victory for anybody but Washington insiders?” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said of the Senate’s plans. “That doesn't solve an ounce of the problem and actually makes the matters worse.” 

Biden, for his part, stressed the human impact of a shut down. 

“If the government shuts down that means members of the U.S. military are going to have to continue to work but not get paid,” the president said. “A government shutdown could impact everything from food safety to cancer research to Head Start programs for children.”