New turmoil over possible shutdown in D.C. amid warnings of a WIC food program shortfall

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, walks back to his office following a vote in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 11, 2024 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day, House Freedom Caucus members left a meeting in the speaker’s office saying that they were talking to the speaker about abandoning the spending agreement that Johnson announced earlier in the week. Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Meetings on Thursday between U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and conservative lawmakers led to speculation he was about to walk away from the bipartisan spending agreement he signed off on just this past weekend — a decision that would greatly increase the chances of a partial government shutdown next week.

Also Thursday, Biden administration officials highlighted another urgent spending problem, warning that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, faces a major funding shortfall due to increased costs and participation. The gap in funding could mean states would have to turn to waiting lists for those who want to enroll, administration officials said on a conference call with reporters.

At the Capitol, a small bloc of House GOP lawmakers who are frustrated with Johnson for brokering the spending deal with Democrats met with the speaker on the next steps in the government funding process.

While the spending deal is seen by many as a major step forward in moving toward consensus following months of tumult, certain GOP lawmakers want to see changes or possibly additions.

Those talks led to considerable confusion as to whether Johnson was considering a shift in the spending deal.

“Let me tell you what’s going on,” Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters outside his office.

“We’re having thoughtful conversations about funding options and priorities. We had a cross section of members in today. We’ll continue having cross sections of members in,” Johnson explained. “And while those conversations are going on, I’ve made no commitments. So if you hear otherwise it’s just simply not true. We’re looking forward to those conversations.”

Democrats and some Republican lawmakers expressed concern that Johnson might switch course just days before a government funding deadline that comes more than three months into the fiscal year.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said Thursday afternoon that her staff told her “there are rumors about that,” though she hadn’t heard from Johnson on the issue.

“I certainly hope that’s not true because it increases the chances of a government shutdown,” Collins said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that senators would continue negotiations with the House based on the agreement for total spending levels that he and Johnson announced Sunday.

“Look, we have a topline agreement,” Schumer said. “Everybody knows to get anything done it has to be bipartisan. So we’re going to continue to work to pass a CR and avoid a shutdown.”

CR stands for continuing resolution, the name often given to the short-term spending bill that Congress approves to give themselves more time to negotiate agreement on the full-year spending bills.

Congress has passed two of those bills so far for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and the Senate is on track to vote on a third CR next week ahead of the Jan. 19 funding deadline for some of the annual bills.

Womack: A ‘flawed strategy’

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, hadn’t heard directly from Johnson about whether he planned to withdraw from the spending agreement as of Thursday afternoon.

“I’m doing my job according to the agreement we have and I’m moving forward,” Murray said.

That spending agreement would provide $886.3 billion in defense and $772.7 billion in domestic discretionary spending for the current fiscal year, which began back on Oct. 1.

Arkansas Republican Rep. Steve Womack said Thursday afternoon that he expected to hear soon if Johnson was considering walking away from the topline deal, though he said that wouldn’t be wise.

“Renegotiating for purposes of appeasing a group of people, 100% of whom you’re not going to have, in my opinion, could be a flawed strategy,” Womack said, referring to the conservatives who have been calling for Johnson to scuttle the agreement.

That group of especially conservative Republicans, many of whom are members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, rarely, if ever, vote for spending bills. And it’s unlikely that they would vote for any full-year bills that can garner support in the Democratic Senate, let alone President Joe Biden’s signature.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, the former House Democratic leader, said that if Johnson were to walk away from the spending deal it would affect his ability to negotiate agreements in the future.

“You can only do that so many times and have any credibility or respect for the way you do business,” Hoyer said.

House Republicans, Hoyer said, have remained a “deeply divided, divisive and dysfunctional party” despite removing their former speaker and electing Johnson to the role.

Congress must pass some sort of spending bill before Jan. 19, otherwise the departments and agencies funded by the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD spending measures would enter a shutdown.

The remaining departments and agencies funded through the annual appropriations process would shut down on Feb. 2 if the House and Senate haven’t come to agreement on either a short-term spending bill or the full-year bills before that deadline.

The Senate is on track to vote on a stopgap spending bill next week that would keep the federal government funded a bit longer. Schumer took steps Thursday to set up a procedural vote Tuesday that will require at least 60 senators to advance it toward final passage. The details of that stopgap spending bill haven’t been released.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Thursday press briefing that House Republicans “need to keep their word,” on the spending deal agreement that Johnson made with Democrats over the weekend.

“We cannot have a shutdown,” she said. “That is their basic duty, to keep the government open.”

WIC ‘a ship heading towards an iceberg’

Even if Congress does pass a stopgap measure to keep the government open, the federal program to provide nutrition assistance to children would face a considerable funding shortfall that could have disastrous effects for some who depend on the program.

WIC provides nutrition assistance to about 6.7 million infants, young children and pregnant and postpartum women per month, but could not continue that pace without a funding increase, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Thursday.

State administrators may soon be faced with difficult choices if Congress does not approve additional spending to account for increased food costs and growing participation, Vilsack and Washington state’s program director Paul Throne said Thursday.

“With rising caseloads, increased food costs and level funding, WIC is a ship heading towards an iceberg,” Throne said.

The federal government spent about $7.5 billion on WIC in fiscal 2023, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

If the USDA and states continued to provide benefits for everyone who qualifies, and Congress does not increase funding, “it would result in a billion-dollar shortfall,” about six weeks’ worth of the program, Vilsack said.

“A funding shortfall of this magnitude presents states with a difficult and untenable decision in terms of how to manage the program,” he said.

To cut costs, states may divert some qualified participants to waiting lists, Vilsack said. Under the program’s rules, postpartum women who are not breastfeeding would be the first placed on waiting lists, then children from 1 to 5 years old without high-risk medical issues, followed by all program participants without high-risk medical issues.

Throne said turning away applicants in need would have “serious” consequences, leaving young children hungry and pregnant women without access to health screenings.

The Washington state program needs additional federal funding to meet its needs, Throne said.

“People are spending more of their WIC benefits, which is a good thing,” Throne said. “But after nearly four years of rising caseloads, my budget is stretched, and I project that I will soon be asking for more help from USDA to feed our 131,000 participants. I’m afraid that this year I may no longer have the budget to serve everyone.”

Vilsack called for Congress to “fully fund” WIC this month.

The first two continuing resolutions of the fiscal year authorized state programs to spend at faster rates to meet the needs of all applicants, but didn’t supply any additional funding.

By not updating spending amounts to reflect higher costs, Congress is putting the program on a path to fail, Vilsack said.

“Through the last two recent continuing resolutions, Congress has indicated to the USDA, the states and the WIC beneficiaries that we should spend current funding actually at a faster rate than Congress has provided funding in order to be able to serve everyone who is eligible” through March, he said. “But Congress hasn’t provided the funds to cover the program once those resources run out.”

A third continuing resolution would keep that imbalance in place for longer, adding to the “major shortages” in funding states would face at the end of fiscal 2024,” Vilsack said.

Ariana Figueroa contributed to this report.


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