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The White House chief of staff says it's on House Republicans to avert a shutdown

President Biden's chief of staff Jeff Zients, seen here in the Oval Office on May 16, 2023, is working with federal agencies to brace for a government shutdown this weekend.
Chip Somodevilla
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Getty Images
President Biden's chief of staff Jeff Zients, seen here in the Oval Office on May 16, 2023, is working with federal agencies to brace for a government shutdown this weekend.

The White House is getting ready to communicate with the public and with federal workers in the event that Congress fails to reach a last-second agreement to keep the government funded beyond Saturday night, President Biden's chief of staff Jeff Zients told NPR.

But it doesn't seem likely that Biden will be communicating face-to-face with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy about the funding impasse in the immediate future.

"There's no need for a meeting right now. The meeting that has to take place is in the House of Representatives — where House Republicans come together and fund the government," Zients said in an exclusive interview.

McCarthy said on Tuesday that he thought it would be "very important" to have a meeting with Biden to discuss government funding and border policies. Zients said White House teams are in regular contact with their counterparts on the Hill, including McCarthy.

Zients says there's nothing easy about a government shutdown

Congress is inching closer to a shutdown. The Senate is moving forward with a short-term bipartisan bill to fund the government through November 17 and provide aid to Ukraine and for disasters in the United States. But House Republicans have rejected that plan and are moving ahead with their own approach, which pairs spending cuts with harsher immigration policies.

Speaking just after getting off a Zoom meeting with Cabinet secretaries to talk through shutdown plans – and just before Biden called to check in from Air Force One – Zients said he was concerned about the impact a shutdown would have on 1.3 million active troops and air traffic controllers, who will go without paychecks. He also noted FEMA recovery projects and small business loans would stall.

"There's nothing easy here — so we'll be prepared, but there's nothing one can do if the government shuts down to avoid these bad consequences," Zients said.

Zients said he did not expect a shutdown to hurt the economy – at least in the short term. "It's never a good time for the government to shut down. But we believe the economy is strong, and as long as House Republicans do their job, the economy will be fine and the government will function," he said.

President Biden, Vice President Harris and congressional leaders — including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — at a May 16 meeting in the Oval Office.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden, Vice President Harris and congressional leaders — including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — at a May 16 meeting in the Oval Office.

The White House pins the blame on House Republicans

Zients repeatedly emphasized that funding the government was up to House Republicans. "We shouldn't be having this conversation," Zients said. "This was settled months ago," he said, recalling the bipartisan funding deal that was reached between Congress and the White House in May during the debt limit negotiations. That deal set spending limits for two-years in hopes of avoiding this exact scenario.

"Now what we have is a small group of extreme Republicans in the House reneging on that deal," he said.

Biden, who is on his way back to Washington after a three-day fundraising trip in California and Arizona, has told donors in recent days that a shutdown would be "disastrous" and described McCarthy as choosing to try to keep his speakership rather than do what's in the interests of the country.

The White House has sought to draw a contrast between Biden governing – and House Republicans who Zients described as focused on a "shutdown and other extraneous issues that really have nothing to do with making peoples' lives better."

President Biden delivers remarks on democracy in Phoenix on Sept. 28, 2023.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden delivers remarks on democracy in Phoenix on Sept. 28, 2023.

Expect to hear from Biden on Sunday, if a shutdown happens

Zients received some advice on how to handle a moment like this from former White House chiefs of staff this summer, over dinner. They told him to make sure the president communicates with the American people, pursues a deal in a bipartisan way, and continues to focus on his day-to-day work.

Should the shutdown happen on Sunday – which looks increasingly likely – expect to hear about from Biden.

"If we do get to a shutdown, the president will absolutely be communicating with the American people — as the president does in these times," Zients said. "Fully expect the president to explain what's going on to the American people and push Congress to do the right thing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 28, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that a government shutdown — rather than proposed budget cuts from House Republicans — would hurt seniors who rely on Meals on Wheels and families with kids in Head Start programs.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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