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US on brink of shutdown as Republicans defeat funding bill

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Parts of the US government are expected to shut down from Sunday after Republican dissidents in the House of Representatives defeated the party’s own stop-gap funding bill in a severe blow to Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

In a tense vote on Friday, 21 Republican rebels voted against McCarthy’s bill that would have funded the government for 30 days, joining all Democrats who opposed it because it included deep cuts to government programmes.

The final vote tally showed 232 House lawmakers opposing the legislation, while just 198 supported it — a humiliating result for McCarthy that further complicates the prospects for a deal to avoid a shutdown and will cast new doubts on his ability to remain as Speaker.

Dysfunction in Congress has embroiled the world’s largest economy as political tensions rise heading into the 2024 election year.

The likely shutdown on Sunday will trigger the furlough of hundreds of thousands of federal workers, leave troops without pay, and shutter a broad swath of government services. With no quick political solution in sight, it could be days or even weeks before it ends.

The political dynamic has echoes of previous closures in 1995 under Bill Clinton and in 2013 under Barack Obama — when hardline Republicans used normally routine deadlines for government funding legislation to force Democratic presidents to accept deep spending cuts and other conservative policies.

This year, McCarthy was pulled to the right by a faction of staunchly conservative members who are mostly allies of former president Donald Trump. They want to slash federal programmes and cut aid to Ukraine — demands that are unpalatable to Democrats — and believe McCarthy has not been aggressive enough in budget discussions.

Some have been openly threatening to oust McCarthy. The scale of the opposition from Republicans to Friday’s legislation will be daunting for the Speaker. As well as his biggest internal foes, such as Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman, the bill was opposed by a few more moderate members such as Nancy Mace of South Carolina.

Before the vote, President Joe Biden blasted the Republican chaos.

“If the House fails to fulfil its most basic function and fails to fund government by tomorrow we’ll have failed all our troops,” he said at an event at the Pentagon on Friday.

Janet Yellen, the US treasury secretary, added her warning about the economic implications while speaking at the port of Savannah in Georgia.

“The failure of House Republicans to act responsibly would hurt American families and cause economic headwinds that could undermine the progress we’re making,” she said.

For Biden, a shutdown will offer a new political opportunity to portray Republicans as reckless in government and beholden to Trump, as the White House tries to make resistance to rightwing extremism on everything from abortion to democratic norms to economic policy a theme of his re-election campaign.

But the shutdown also carries some political risk for the president, particularly if an extended closure inflicts significant damage to the economy at a time when his approval ratings are already low.

One possible path to an agreement might come if the Senate reaches a bipartisan deal to keep funding the government, pressuring McCarthy to put it on the floor of the House for a vote. Democrats may also vow to protect McCarthy’s job as Speaker if that were put to a vote, but that could undermine his credibility further with Republicans.

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