Bringing some order to Capitol Hill is proving to be an extraordinarily tall order.
The year began auspiciously with a pledge by both Republicans and Democrats to return to the old ways when it came to the oldest of congressional duties: funding the government. “Regular order” was the catchphrase, one that refers to the traditional, step-by-step legislative process popularized by “Schoolhouse Rock.”
No longer would a handful of leaders closet themselves in their Capitol office suites to hash out $1 trillion in spending at the last minute, cutting everyone else out of the bargaining. Individual spending bills would be debated and hammered out in committee, put on the floor for even more discussion, subjected to amendment proposals that lawmakers had the chance to approve or reject, and then passed just like the founders dreamed it up.
It hasn’t quite worked out. Just two weeks from the end of the fiscal year, the appropriations process is in chaos, not one of a dozen bills has passed, a shutdown looms, tempers are flaring and the endgame is barely beginning. Good intentions have been chewed up in the political machinery, lost to intense partisanship, vast ideological differences, bad faith and a refusal to compromise as bands of far-right Republicans in the House and Senate have proven unyielding even to their own leaders.
“Can’t govern, don’t want to govern,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, characterizing the demands of the extreme right in the House as, “if you don’t make the cuts we want, we shut the place down.”
Lawmakers in both parties have complained endlessly about being jammed with year-end catchall spending bills known as omnibuses — trillion-dollar take-it-or-leave-it measures fashioned by House and Senate leaders and presented to the rank-and-file with the shutdown clock loudly ticking. But after Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden reached a top-line spending agreement in May tied to a suspension of the federal debt limit, there was suddenly a glimmer of hope. Appropriators in the House and Senate put on their green eyeshades and got to work. But things quickly went off the rails.
Furious at Mr. McCarthy for reaching a debt-limit compromise they deemed unacceptable, the hard-right element among House Republicans demanded that the spending bills be written at levels below the McCarthy-Biden deal, which had been approved by the House and Senate with Democratic votes. That inflamed House Democrats who accused Republicans of acting in bad faith and balked at the more austere spending bills.
Complicating things further, the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus and other far-right Republicans also insisted on packing the spending bills with anti-abortion provisions and other proposals aimed at what they deride as “woke” Democratic policies, unsettling Republicans from districts carried by Mr. Biden. Mr. McCarthy was left without the votes even to pass such usually noncontentious measures as the Agriculture Department spending bill.
This week, members of the Freedom Caucus refused to back the typically routine procedural vote needed to bring the annual Pentagon spending bill to the floor, insisting on a guarantee that the entire funding package for the fiscal year would not exceed prepandemic spending levels of $1.47 trillion. They simultaneously threatened to try to oust Mr. McCarthy from his job if he crossed them. They dug in, paralyzing the House.
“We fight,” said Representative Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina and one of the leaders on the far right. “We believe in what we’re doing. The jury will be the country and the jury is fed up with government and the reckless spending and we cannot continue down the path we are on.”
In the Senate, things had been going in a completely different direction. Senators Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, had taken the reins of the Appropriations Committee and the two experienced legislators were determined to show how things should be done. For weeks they did, pushing all 12 spending bills through their committee on a bipartisan basis with unanimous or lopsided votes while steering clear of the extraneous policy fights that can doom spending bills. Their colleagues marveled.
“They are certainly keeping the committee trains moving on time,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the panel. “I give them full credit.”
On Thursday, the Senate voted 91 to 7 — an almost unheard-of consensus these days — to bring the first three spending bills to the floor, and it looked like smooth sailing. Then Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, decided to get involved, acting in solidarity with his fellow right-wing Republicans in the House.
Mr. Johnson objected to a carefully negotiated agreement on potential amendments to the bills, arguing the measures should be considered separately. It was a rather technical point since they had been debated and passed separately and unanimously by the committee and were merged on the floor mainly to save time.
Ms. Collins was flabbergasted that Mr. Johnson would intervene to the detriment of his own Republican colleagues, disregard the momentous effort that had gone into getting the bills ready for floor debate and make an objection that could ultimately force the Senate toward the omnibus that Mr. Johnson and others so despise.
“We worked hard to draft, to develop and approve all 12 of the appropriations bills for the first time in five years,” she said. “How can a member stand up and object and at the same time say, ‘Oh, I don’t want an omnibus bill?’” Mr. Johnson’s attack, Ms. Collins said, meant “the Senate is broken once again.”
In a private Republican lunch off the Senate floor following Mr. Johnson’s ambush, Ms. Collins criticized the Wisconsin senator’s interference and warned her colleagues of the harm it could do. But Mr. Johnson appeared unchastened, sauntering to the back of the room as he came under fire and making himself a sundae — complete with chocolate sauce and sprinkles — out of the ice cream that Ms. Collins had provided as the host.
As lawmakers and leaders surveyed the week’s legislative wreckage, they circulated ideas to get things back on track next week.
Mr. McCarthy pledged that the House would remain in session until some spending solution could be found. He was being urged by allies to bring the Pentagon spending bill to the floor and force the issue, banking on the fact that those outside the Freedom Caucus were growing increasingly irritated with their colleagues and would back the speaker in a showdown. A group of hard-right conservatives was also talking with more mainstream Republicans about a potential compromise stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown and allow more time to consider appropriations bills.
In the Senate, a search was on for procedural tactics that could circumvent Mr. Johnson’s blockade.
But the way out for both chambers was very uncertain with a shutdown not far off. For now, regular order has given way to deep disorder.