Donald Trump Paul Ryan
Credit: Office of the Speaker/Wikimedia Commons

It is the silly season again. As a government shutdown looms at midnight, everyone is engaged in the blame game. So, let me add a little clarity to where the blame lies for a shutdown.

In order for a bill to become a law, it is mandatory that both the House and the Senate pass it and that the two bills are absolutely identical to each other. As things stand, the House has passed a continuing resolution to keep the government operating. The Senate could just take that bill and without changing a single word of it bring it up for a vote and pass it. If they were to do that, the problem would be solved for now. They could take those two bills and send them to the president for his signature.

However, if the Senate wants to make any changes to what the House produced, then the resulting bill, assuming it then passed the Senate, would have to go back to the House, and the House would have to approve it without changing a thing. The two chambers can ping-pong the bill like this for as long as they want, or they can form a conference committee to iron out the differences in the two bills. Either way, eventually they have to agree on one set of legislative language.

If House Republicans are serious about avoiding a government shutdown, then they need to be prepared to do some more work in case the Senate needs to makes changes to their continuing resolution in order to get the necessary votes. But the House is adjourning and leaving town.

Now, Rep. Kevin McCarthy is suggesting that it’s up to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer whether or not there will be a government shutdown, but we should be clear that McCarthy is also saying that Schumer must accept the House language as it is, with absolutely no compromises or modifications. McCarthy is actually speaking to all 100 senators, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who has already said that he isn’t supporting the House’s bill.

Let’s look a little deeper. The Republicans have a 51-49 majority but because of John McCain’s illness, they are functioning today with a 50-49 majority. Without Sen. Graham’s vote, the best they can hope to do without Democratic support is a 49-49 tie. That would be sufficient if Vice President Pence were available to cast a tie-breaking vote, but Pence is leaving town too to travel to the Middle East. What this means is that the Republicans don’t have the votes to pass the House version even if the Democrats don’t object to holding the vote. Even if the Democrats don’t filibuster, the Republicans can’t prevent a shutdown on their own.

Of course the Democrats will filibuster. Technically at least one of their members will object to a motion to proceed to a vote on the bill, and this will require Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to come up with 60 votes to overcome the objection. That means he’ll need ten Democrats and he can’t currently identify one who will help him.

This is the sense in which the Democrats can to some degree be held responsible for the shutdown. But the Senate Republicans can’t pass the House bill without modifications anyway, so if the House leaves town, the shutdown is going to be their fault. Moreover, the Democrats are under no obligation to vote for things they don’t support and if the Republicans want their votes they need to earn their votes through negotiations and compromise. But with the House leaving town, any changes to the bill will cause a shutdown.

There’s never been an example before of the government shutting down because the minority party didn’t vote to keep it open. And that’s not what’s going to happen tonight. The government is going to shut down because the House bill needs to be changed and modified to earn Republican support, let alone Democratic support, and they’re no longer allowed to change or modify it.

You can draw your own conclusions, but it seems obvious that if the Republicans were serious about avoiding a shutdown, then the House would not adjourn and leave town and Mike Pence would postpone his trip to the Middle East. The Republicans are not only going to be responsible for the shutdown, but they obviously welcome it.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at