US Congress races to pass budget averting weekend government shutdown

Congress has just hours left to avert a shutdown of several key federal agencies (WIN MCNAMEE)
Congress has just hours left to avert a shutdown of several key federal agencies (WIN MCNAMEE)

US lawmakers scrambled Friday to fund the government before a midnight deadline to avert a partial shutdown on a frantic day of negotiation that sparked calls for new leadership amid a rebellion in Republican ranks.

Congress has just hours left to stave off the closure of several key federal agencies -- including defense and homeland security -- via a six-bill funding package covering vast swathes of the 2024 budget.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson steered the $1.2 trillion package through a morning vote in the lower chamber and it now has to be approved by the Senate to ensure the lights stay on through the weekend.

But the deal angered right-wingers who immediately launched a bid to oust Johnson, reigniting an intra-party battle between traditional conservatives and firebrand supporters of Donald Trump that crippled Congress for months last year.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a close ally of Trump, told reporters she had filed a "motion to vacate" the speaker's chair over Johnson's endorsement of the funding package, thrashed out over weeks of tense negotiations between the parties.

"This is a betrayal of the American people, this is a betrayal of Republican voters," the Georgia congresswoman told reporters.

Greene is at odds with much of the right wing -- she was kicked out of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus after a row with a fellow lawmaker -- but she has Trump's ear and is influential among far-right Republicans outside of Congress.

- 'Respect' -

The timeline for next steps on Greene's resolution were not immediately clear, and it is not out of the question that Democrats could come to Johnson's aid -- but they would likely require far-reaching concessions to rescue him.

They could potentially demand a vote on $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine that Republicans have refused to bring to the House floor after it passed the Senate last month.

Greene told CNN she was moving against Johnson "with sincerity and respect for my conference" and that "quite a few" Republicans were supporting her effort.

Her resolution, which requires a simple majority to pass, comes after the same move led to the removal of previous speaker Kevin McCarthy last fall -- and weeks of chaos as Republicans rejected potential replacements before settling on Johnson.

"I have respect for him as a person, but he is not doing the job," Greene said, indicating that lawmakers could vote on Johnson's future when they return from their Easter recess in two weeks.

The spending fight came with both sides pushing their campaign messaging and priorities ahead of November's presidential election, when President Joe Biden faces Trump.

- Limited impact -

Senate leaders were seeking an agreement Friday on a sped-up timeline to green-light the legislation, which has already been delayed by six months of haggling in a Congress divided almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Party leaders fear the Democratic-led Senate may struggle to rubber-stamp the House vote before the midnight deadline, with arcane procedural rules threatening to push the action into the weekend

A lapse in federal funding over Saturday and Sunday would have a limited impact on government operations, however, and would not likely be felt by the public, as long as the spigot was turned back on at the start of the working week.

A longer pause could result in thousands of public employees being sent home without pay and an array of government operations and services being hit, from airport security to border controls.

The first quarter of the budget -- six bills covering agriculture, science, veterans' programs, transport and housing -- passed without major drama last month.

Five of the six bills covering the rest of federal spending were straightforward, but disputes over the funding of homeland security delayed the release of the deal, originally expected last weekend.

Republican hard-liners were angered by a lack of stricter border security provisions in the package, as well as the overall price tag and the elevated speed with which the deal has been negotiated.