White House warns nutrition assistance for 7m mothers and children would stop if GOP causes shutdown

White House is warning of the human cost of a potential government shutdown to draw attention to what they describe as the direct consequences of Republican rule

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Monday 25 September 2023 19:54 BST
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What's the cost of a government shutdown?

With less than a week until the US government runs out of funding and just days until Republican presidential candidates not named Donald Trump square off for their second primary debate, the White House and President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign are looking to capitalise on the dysfunction and spectacle in the House Republican Conference and the GOP primary field by blaming Republicans for the consequences of any shutdown and tying it to Mr Trump.

In the US political system, Congress is responsible for passing 12 annual spending bills to fund operations of government and countless social service programmes before the start of a new fiscal year on 1 October.

But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has failed to make any progress on passing any of the 12, and a small number of GOP representatives have blocked any effort to find a way out of the impasse by threatening to oust the House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, should he rely on Democratic votes to pass a compromise measure that would keep the government running long enough to negotiate budget levels for the full fiscal year.

Should a solution not reach Mr Biden’s desk for his signature by midnight on Saturday, millions of federal civilian workers and US troops could be furloughed or forced to work without pay, and myriad federal programmes could be temporarily shuttered with dire consequences for those who rely on them.

Speaking in the White House briefing room on Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that a key programme which provides nutritional support for pregnant women, nursing mothers and their young children would lose all federal funding if Congress does not act before the deadline five days from now.

Mr Vilsack decried what he described as “an extreme House Republican effort to recklessly steer our government towards a preventable shutdown. That would put many of the critical services that we care about deeply at USDA at risk”.

He recalled that he also served as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, including during the 2013 government shutdown brought on by then-freshman GOP senator Ted Cruz during a dispute over the Affordable Care Act.

Mr Vilsack pointed out that his department’s Women, Infants and Children programme provides nutrition assistance for more than half of all new-borns in the United States — “nearly 7 million pregnant moms, new mothers and young children” — all of whom are counting on the federal programme for support.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks during a press briefing at the White House as White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre looks on
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks during a press briefing at the White House as White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre looks on (AP)

“With a shutdown, what we would see across the United States is a denial of those benefits and opportunities,” he said.

Mr Vilsack also warned that food prices could be impacted in the event that the government is allowed to run out of operating funds because Agriculture Department workers who process needed loans and perform other services for farmers would be furloughed starting on Saturday.

He further cautioned that required furloughs at USDA labs could hinder the department’s ability to detect animal diseases in the US food supply as part of its responsibility to inspect all meat, poultry and eggs sold in the US, as well as put a halt to other important programmes.

“We have a presence in every county in the country. So it’s going to impact and affect literally every county in the country. It’s FSA offices, its rural development offices, its NRCS conservation employees. It’s some of the Forest Service employees. It’s a lot of the researchers and people who work for the Agricultural Research Service [and] its administrative staff. You can have people working on the job, but if you don’t have the administrative people behind it, the job doesn’t get done. It’s incredibly disruptive,” he said.

The former Iowa governor and veteran cabinet member’s appearance at Monday’s press briefing is part of what Biden White House and campaign aides are describing as a coordinated effort to make sure the American public lays the consequences of a lapse in government operations at the feet of Mr McCarthy and his fractious House Republican Conference.

Both the White House and Mr Biden’s re-election effort are using the dysfuntion in the Republican-controlled House and the threat of a looming shutdown to draw attention to what they describe as the direct consequences of Republican rule.

Mr Trump, the disgraced former president who is attempting to reclaim his former office while facing nearly 100 felony counts in four jurisdictions — including charges for fomenting a coup after losing the 2020 election to Mr Biden — has even contributed to his once and future opponent’s efforts by egging on the GOP representatives in posts to his Truth Social platform.

In one poorly-worded, incorrectly-capitalised missive from late Sunday evening, Mr Trump urged the GOP to shutter the government if they don’t get every item on a wish list he posted, including massive cuts to social programmes, an end to funding for the multiple Department of Justice probes into his conduct, new restrictions on voting and harsh immigration policies enacted into law.

Mr Trump wrote: “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN! Close the Border, stop the Weaponization of “Justice,” and End Election Interference - WE MUST HAVE HONEST ELECTIONS. It’s time Republicans learned how to fight!”

Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for Mr Biden’s re-election bid, said in a statement that it is “clear” that Mr Trump” is “directing MAGA House Republicans to  either slash funding for food safety, education, law enforcement, housing, and more, or completely shut down the government — which could delay cancer research, force federal law enforcement and troops to work without pay, and kneecap essential services hardworking Americans rely on every day” because he believes a shutdown would be a help to his quest to regain the presidency.

He also accused the House GOP of “gleefully letting Donald Trump function as their chief political strategist at the expense of American families” and said the ex-president’s behaviour is “shameful, but unsurprising from someone who has demonstrated he couldn’t care less about the American people”.

At the same time, the White House has been calling attention to both the consequences of a shutdown and the GOP’s inability to craft basic appropriations legislation that can pass both the House and Senate,  while contrasting both with Mr Biden’s governing efforts.

“Funding the government is one of the most basic responsibilities of Congress. And it’s time for Republicans to start doing the job America elected them to do,” said one White House official on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Mr Vilsack’s appearance in the briefing room will be the first of multiple efforts by Mr Biden’s cabinet to highlight the dangers of a shutdown, and said the administration “will continue to make clear that extreme House Republicans need to stop playing partisan political games with peoples’ lives, abide by the bipartisan budget agreement that a large majority of them voted for just a few months ago, and keep the government open so that it can continue serving the American people”.

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