Big Four lawmakers ‘cautiously optimistic’ they can AVOID government shutdown in four days that Biden says would ‘damage’ economy

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Written By Maya Cantina

Top lawmakers came out of a meeting with the president ‘cautiously optimistic’ they could avoid a looming government shutdown with a funding deadline on Friday. 

The meeting with the ‘Big Four’ in Congress was also last-ditch plea from Biden to Speaker Mike Johnson to take up the Senate-passed $95 billion foreign aid package including assistance to Ukraine and Israel. 

After emerging from the meeting, the lawmakers said they are focused on avoiding a shutdown in four days, but remained divided over the timeline on getting a foreign assistance package done.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., revealed that he had a one-on-one meeting with Biden where he said that his ‘first priority’ still remains securing the border ahead of providing funds for Ukraine. 

But he said he’s ‘optimistic’ that he can work with his Democrat counterparts to avoid an end of week shutdown.

‘I’m cautiously optimistic that we can do what is necessary within the next day or so to close down these bills and avoid a government shutdown,’ House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., echoed upon leaving the meeting.

Meanwhile, President Biden gave a stern warning about the ‘consequences’ of failing to pass Ukraine and Israel aid package at the start of the meeting.

The ‘consequences of inaction every day in Ukraine are dire,’ Biden said. 

Biden started the Big Four meeting with a warning about the ‘dire’ consequences of not funding Ukraine 

Also at the meeting were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, Speaker Mike Johnson, second from left, Vice President Kamala Harris, second from right

Also at the meeting were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, Speaker Mike Johnson, second from left, Vice President Kamala Harris, second from right  

Jeffries suggested another continuing resolution, or CR, a stopgap funding bill to kick the deadline down the road could be needed. 

‘At the same time, it may be important to come to an agreement that’s bipartisan and anchored in common sense to extend the pending expiration of the eight additional bills that are scheduled to lapse on March 8th so that good-faith, tough negotiations can continue in the absence of a government shutdown.’ 

Biden, Johnson, R-La., House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., must come to agreement on spending legislation before Friday at midnight – when funding for four of 12 government agencies will expire.

After the meeting Schumer said he warned Johnson about failing to get a Ukraine aid package on the floor: ‘History is looking over your shoulder. If you don’t do the right thing, whatever the immediate politics are, you will regret it.’ 

Schumer said it ‘wasn’t clear’ why Johnson needs border security before Ukraine aid. 

Johnson agreed with Jeffries that they would avoid a shutdown. 

‘We believe we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shut down,’ said the speaker. ‘We will get the government funded and we’ll keep working on that.’

On the national security supplemental aid, Johnson said: ‘The first priority of the country is our border and making sure it’s secure. I believe the president can take executive authority right now today to change that and I told him that again today in person as I’ve said to him many times publicly and privately over the last several weeks. It’s time for action.’ 

On government funding, Biden said to congressional leaders: ‘Sure you guys have got that all taken care of. All kidding aside, it’s Congress’s responsibility to fund the government.’

‘A shutdown would damage the economy significantly and we all agree to that and need a bipartisan solution. I want to hear from the group and I want to hear from all of you here.’

On Israel, Biden said at the meeting: ‘We need to deal with the Israeli portion. That also contains a significant portion having to do with humanitarian assistance in the Palestinian area that I think is important.’

Biden, left, pictured with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, right

Biden, left, pictured with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, right 

‘We have to replenish the air defenses for Israel and we have to work on making sure they don’t face the threat from — they face a threat from what’s going on in the Middle East, not just from Hamas, but from Iran.’

On Seth Myers’ comedy show Monday night, Biden said he is being advised that a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war could come as soon as next week. That issue is anticipated to add even more pressure to the already high-stakes negotiations.

Also participating in the meeting were Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, CIA Director Bill Burns, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and a handful of White House and congressional aides.  

On government funding, he said to congressional leaders: 'Sure you guys have got that all taken care of. All kidding aside, it's congress's responsibility to fund the government'

On government funding, he said to congressional leaders: ‘Sure you guys have got that all taken care of. All kidding aside, it’s congress’s responsibility to fund the government’

On Israel, Biden said at the meeting: 'We need to deal with the Israeli portion. That also contains a significant portion having to do with humanitarian assistance in the Palestinian area that I think is important'

On Israel, Biden said at the meeting: ‘We need to deal with the Israeli portion. That also contains a significant portion having to do with humanitarian assistance in the Palestinian area that I think is important’

Leaving for the White House, Johnson told reporters asking if there will be a government shutdown: ‘No. We will work to prevent that.’ 

Some had speculated that Johnson might allow the government to go into a shutdown as a bargaining chip for spending cuts. Some right wing conservatives have in recent days said they aren’t afraid of a shutdown.  

And weeks ago the Senate passed a $95 billion bill to offer aid to Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and the Indo-Pacific that Johnson has resisted bringing up in the House without border security measures. 

Johnson, meanwhile, is currently under pressure from conservatives to not dole out more money for foreign aid, putting him at odds with Biden and the other congressional leaders, who largely want to pass funding for Israel and Ukraine. 

After meeting with Schumer on Monday, McConnell told reporters: ‘No, we’re not going to shut the government down.’

Johnson orchestrated the so-called ‘laddered’ continuing resolution, or CR, as a means to punt the funding deadline down the road on two different timeframes. For four agencies, funding runs out on March 1. For the other eight, it’ll expire one week later on March 8.

The House does not return to Washington until Wednesday evening, just two days before the shutdown. 

Weekend negotiations for a spending plan on the first four agencies – Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD – seemed to stall out – text was expected Sunday evening but was not released. 

Schumer wrote a letter to colleagues Sunday night blaming House Republicans for the holdup. 

‘[I]t is clear now that House Republicans need more time to sort themselves out,’ Schumer wrote. ‘It is my sincere hope that in the face of a disruptive shutdown that would hurt our economy and make American families less safe, Speaker Johnson will step up to once again buck the extremists in his caucus and do the right thing.’ 

Johnson hit back to call Schumer’s letter ‘counterproductive’ and said there are ongoing ‘good faith’ agreements to reach agreement. 

He blamed the holdup on 11th-hour Democratic demands ‘that were not previously included in the Senate bills,’ including new spending ‘priorities that are farther left than what their chamber agreed upon.’ 

Democrats have been pushing for another $1 billion for the  USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). 

The House’s Agriculture appropriations bill would fund the program at 2023 levels. 

‘This is not a time for petty politics. House Republicans will continue to work in good faith and hope to reach an outcome as soon as possible, even as we continue to insist that our own border security must be addressed immediately.’ 

Some right-wing conservatives have demanded border security provisions be attached to spending legislation, which could thwart any chance of passing both chambers.

But they’ve come around to the idea of another CR – with the House’s Freedom Caucus and other fiscal hawks advocating for giving up on appropriations talks and pursuing a full year CR. 

‘If Congress goes past April 30 on a CR, all discretionary spending is cut 1%!’ Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., noted on X of a provision that was named ‘the Massie Rule’ after him.

A one percent, across the board spending cut was written into the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the debt limit deal negotiated between former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Biden.

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