US Congress passes bill to avert government shutdown, hours ahead of deadline

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The US Congress on Thursday passed legislation to avert a government shutdown, but another test of President Joe Biden's agenda lay ahead as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

Some progressive Democrats vowed to vote against the bill to invest in the nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure, angry that Democrats have not yet reached agreement on a multi-trillion-dollar companion bill with funding for social services and to address climate change.

The House approved the measure to fund the government through Dec. 3 in a bipartisan 254-175 vote, hours after it passed the Senate 65-35. It will now go to Biden for signing before funding runs out at midnight.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi confirmed the House will also vote Thursday on the infrastructure bill, despite fresh infighting between moderate and progressive Democrats.

When reporters asked No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer if he was confident that bill would pass in a Thursday vote, he had a one-word reply: "Nope."

Failure to pass that measure would be a stinging setback for Biden. The infrastructure legislation has already passed the Senate with Republican and Democratic support. But it could fall victim to an impasse between Democratic moderates and progressives over a larger bill that would bolster social services and tackle climate change.

Lawmakers on the party's left flank have said they will not vote for the infrastructure bill unless they feel certain their priorities will be reflected in the social-spending bill.

Senator Joe Manchin, a key Democratic moderate with the power to block legislation in the Senate, said on Thursday that bill should cost no more than $1.5 trillion – far lower than the $3.5 trillion price tag floated by Biden.

Pelosi, who had earlier promised moderates a vote on the smaller $1 trillion infrastructure bill this week, said at a news conference that the party was in a "good place." But she declined to predict whether the measure would pass on Thursday.

With razor-thin majorities in Congress, Democrats cannot afford to lose many votes if they want to pass their agenda. And they are unlikely to win much support from House Republicans eager to take back the majority in the 2022 midterm elections.

The stopgap spending bill approved in the Senate would also provide aid for communities hard hit by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. Money to help Afghan refugees is included as well.

Manchin's proposed price tag of $1.5 trillion was sure to rile progressives, who initially proposed $6 trillion in new spending. A group of protesters chanted "Manchin is a traitor" while he spoke on Thursday.

He said the bill should also help natural-gas producers, who have a large presence in his home state of West Virginia. That was sure to anger environmentalists, who have urged a swift shift away from fossil fuels in the face of worsening climate change.

Manchin also said lawmakers should first sort out what taxes are needed to cover the cost of new spending. He said the differences could take weeks to resolve.

Another Democratic moderate, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, declined to say whether she agreed with Manchin's proposal. She has met with Biden multiple times to discuss the bill.

Debt-ceiling threat

In yet another high-stakes battle, congressional Democrats and Republicans continued brawling over giving the Treasury Department additional borrowing authority beyond the current statutory limit of $28.4 trillion. A historic US debt default could occur around Oct. 18, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has estimated, if Congress fails to act.

Republicans want no part of the debt limit increase, saying it is Democrats' problem since they control Congress and the White House.

The House late on Wednesday approved a bill suspending the debt limit through December 2022. The Senate could vote on it "as early as next week," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, but Republicans are expected to block it again.

Yellen said on Thursday it would be a "catastrophe" if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling. The uncertainty is starting to filter into financial markets, though few believe the nation will ultimately default.

The looming debt crisis is rattling Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, according to an Ipsos national opinion poll conducted for Reuters on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It showed that 65% of adults, including eight in 10 Democrats and five in 10 Republicans, are "very" or "somewhat" concerned that Congress will fail to reach a debt deal in time.

The poll also found that 30% think congressional Republicans deserve the most blame if there is a government shutdown, while 21% would blame Democrats in Congress and 16% would blame Biden.

(REUTERS)

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