The White House is now “girding for a shutdown” and senior West Wing officials are drawing up plans for which personnel would be deemed “essential” starting on October 1 as the deadline to fund the government is only a handful of days away.
Most of President Joe Biden’s senior-most aides are expected to be designated “essential,” meaning they would not be furloughed, one administration official said. The contingency planning currently underway kicked off in earnest on Friday when the Office of Management and Budget began its formal process of communicating with agencies about the possibility of bringing to halt all work deemed “non-essential.”
Within the ranks of the White House, prior shutdowns have seen employees whose roles carrying the title “Special Assistant to the President” – a rank that also carries access to the Navy Mess – automatically deemed to be serving in essential roles. A 2023 directory of White House staff and salaries submitted to Congress each year showed 97 employees with that title.
Even Biden is planning to remain in Washington this weekend, a relatively rare occurrence, as the likelihood of a shutdown loomed. He typically decamps for one of his Delaware homes or Camp David on Friday afternoons, but White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that he would remain in the capital.
The active preparations related to White House staffing is yet another sign of the widespread anticipation in Washington that lawmakers on Capitol Hill may fail to find a way to fund the government by the end-of-month deadline.
With four days until funding expires, Senate leadership on Tuesday reached a deal that would keep the government open through November 17, with $6.2 billion in funding for Ukraine and $6 billion for domestic disasters, CNN reported. A White House official had said earlier this week that Biden would be “broadly supportive” of a Senate-brokered deal, even if it included a fraction of the $24 billion the administration was seeking to continue assisting Ukraine.
But even after a deal was reached in the Senate, White House officials maintained that the ultimate outcome remained unpredictable, in large part because it was impossible to guess what House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s next moves might be. McCarthy, who may see a harder-line package with steeper spending cuts as the antidote to his intra-party politics, has not committed to putting a bipartisan Senate bill on floor for a vote.
“Ultimately it’s going to come down to Kevin McCarthy and his conference,” said National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
Behind the scenes, the White House is not confident the two chambers can reach a mutually agreed deal in the next few days.
“Nothing is inevitable, but every day that passes, it’s more likely,” a White House official said of a shutdown. “It’s hard to say we are confident about anything.”
The administration has been rolling out new warnings this week about what the effects of the shutdown would be, focusing Wednesday on the effects to travel. The White House warned a shutdown could risk “significant delays for travelers” across the country.
“During an Extreme Republican Shutdown, more than 13,000 air traffic controllers and 50,000 Transportation Security Officers – in addition to thousands of other Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel – would have to show up to do their critical jobs without getting paid until funding becomes available,” a White House news release said.
It added, “In previous shutdowns, this led to significant delays and longer wait times for travelers at airports across the country.”
CNN has reported during previous shutdowns that many of the TSA and air traffic control personnel were forced to call out from work to find other ways to pay their bills. The White House also noted that a shutdown “would halt air traffic controller training – potentially leading to long-term disruptions to the industry at a moment when we’ve seen critical progress filling a backlog of controllers.”
The White House has been closely monitoring the ongoing deliberations on Capitol Hill, including McCarthy’s efforts to placate some of the hardline members of his own caucus, as well as the deliberations in the Senate.
Yet without a direct role in the negotiations, the White House strategy has been as much about messaging as it is about finding a funding solution. Biden’s aides are broadly confident that Republicans will catch the blame if the government shutters, and the president recorded a video this week pointing the figure at a “small group of extreme House Republicans” he said are “determined to shut down the government.”
House Republicans, he added, “refuse to stand up to the extremists in their party – so now everyone in America could be forced to pay the price.”