A shutdown is looking increasingly likely as lawmakers once again failed to advance a key defence spending bill on Thursday, with just nine days left to agree on additional legislation that will fund the government through the end of the year.
The spending battle at the U.S. Capitol has been growing increasingly heated over several issues, including whether to continue sending military and financial aid to Ukraine.
If the dispute isn’t resolved by Sept. 30 and government appropriations lapse, however, U.S. agencies including the Department of Defense have contingencies in place to exempt certain operations from shutting down due to a lack of funding.
The exemptions will include the program that allows U.S. military training of Ukrainian soldiers on tactics and equipment, as well as weapons shipments to Kyiv, Pentagon spokesperson Chris Sherwood said in an emailed statement.
“Operation Atlantic Resolve is an exempted activity under a government lapse in appropriations,” Sherwood said, using the official name for the U.S. Department of Defense’s operations supporting Ukraine.
Politico first reported the news about the exemption.
The Pentagon’s statement came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday, part of a whirlwind trip to Washington where Zelenskyy made the case for continued aid for the war effort.
Austin assured Zelenskyy “that the United States will work with allies and partners to ensure Ukraine has the capabilities it needs to defeat Russian aggression,” Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement highlighting the visit.
During a press briefing Thursday, Ryder admitted a shutdown could have an impact on Ukrainian military training if “certain personnel” are unable to report for duty.
Military operations are typically halted during a government shutdown unless they’re deemed critical to national security. Yet Pentagon leaders are able to make exemptions for operations that are allowed to continue if funding is halted under U.S. law, which allows the same discretion for other federal agencies.
Guidance issued last week exempts military training and exercises “required to achieve and maintain operational readiness” from a potential shutdown this year.
More funding needed
The Biden administration announced another US$325 million Thursday in what’s known as presidential drawdown assistance for Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the package would include additional air defence, artillery ammunition, cluster munitions and other arms.
The aid package, like others announced in recent weeks, comes from money already approved by Congress that totals about US$113 billion. But U.S. President Joe Biden is asking Congress to approve another US$24 billion in military and humanitarian aid that will ensure Ukraine is funded through the end of this year.
That demand is receiving pushback from some U.S. House Republicans. Far-right members aligned with former president Donald Trump have said they oppose to any future aid for Ukraine, whereas House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans have called for assurances that a Ukrainian victory is possible before bringing Biden’s request to a vote.
Zelenskyy on Thursday met with McCarthy and other congressional leaders from both parties, as well as top U.S. military and national security officials, and explained how the U.S. aid would help Ukraine’s fighters while answering questions on the way forward for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Despite an influx of U.S. aid earlier this year in preparation, the counteroffensive has met heavy Russian resistance and has failed to make anticipated gains.
Zelenskyy “conceded that it’s tough, very tough to overcome entrenched defenses,” Independent Sen. Angus King said. “They believe they will make slow but steady progress, but it’s not going to be quick.”
Continuing U.S. military aid is considered crucial as signs of Western fatigue in assisting Ukraine are beginning to show. Poland, a top supplier of military equipment to Ukraine, announced late Wednesday it would no longer send Kyiv weapons amid a deepening rift over Ukrainian grain imports.
Zelenskyy is set to visit Ottawa on Friday, where he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to stress the need for Western resolve as another harsh winter for Ukraine approaches. Both leaders and Biden made similar pleas at the United Nations this week.
Asked about the funding issue after meeting with Zelenskyy, Biden answered, “I’m counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress. There’s no alternative.”
Yet Congress is having plenty of problems handling its regular responsibilities.
In a crushing defeat Thursday, a handful of Republican hardliners blocked a typically popular defence bill from advancing — the second time this week it was set back, an unheard-of loss for a House speaker.
Even a stopgap bill to keep government funding past the Sept. 30 deadline, called a continuing resolution or CR, is a non-starter for some on the right flank who have essentially seized control of the House.
“This is a whole new concept of individuals who just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said after Thursday’s vote, acknowledging he was frustrated. “It doesn’t work.”
The Associated Press reported that the White House is planning to tell federal agencies on Friday to prepare for a shutdown, following standard protocol of issuing a warning seven days ahead of a federal disruption in services.
The White House and Democrats, along with some Republicans, warn that a shutdown would be devastating for people who rely on their government for everyday services and would undermine America’s standing in the world.
But hardline Republicans, egged on by Trump, are holding the line in calling for steep spending cuts and adding conservative priorities to the spending bills that Democrats oppose.
The defence bill that failed on Thursday included the repeal of a Pentagon policy that reimburses expenses for service members who travel to obtain an abortion, as well as rolling back diversity initiatives in the military.
A shutdown would see hundreds of thousands of U.S. government workers furloughed and non-essential federal operations shutter across the country. Federal aid programs like Social Security, Medicaid and child welfare benefits would only continue so long as there’s adequate reserve funding in place to keep payments rolling out.
— with files from the Associated Press