Dodging another government shutdown - for now

Congress has once again failed to follow its own budget rules and establish a detailed spending plan (whether working away from the president’s budget or its own) before the start of the fiscal year. This was not for lack of trying on the part of many members, but rather reflected the seeming inability of the principals to resolve their differences in a constructive manner.

We previously reported on this situation and threw out some ideas for resolving it. Our basic suggestion was that Congress should get cracking on its appropriation bills – which Democratic senators had been filibustering – instead of waiting until the last minute and then passing a continuing resolution (CR) to allow the government to continue operating after the new fiscal year began on October 1. Hopefully Senate Democrats would voluntarily stop their use of filibusters so the appropriation bills could be worked out, but if not Senate Republicans could “go nuclear” and amend the Senate rules to abolish the filibuster. Another budget showdown looms,

SAFE’s views were communicated to the Delaware members of Congress in an
8/18/15 letter; none of them responded.

No appropriation bills were passed in September, and the immediate question is whether a CR will be passed by Wednesday or there will be a government shutdown after all.

Here’s our analysis of how things got to the present state, and what we would like to see happen. Reviewing the bidding – leadership change – path forward.

A. Reviewing the bidding – In early September, the president indicated that he wanted the budget showdown resolved on his terms. Weekly address, 9/5/15.

If Congress wants to support working Americans and strengthen our middle class, they can pass a budget that invests in, not makes cuts to, the middle class. If they pass a budget with shortsighted sequester cuts that harm our military and our economy, I’ll veto it.

Two weeks later, the president blamed Republicans for the impasse and warned that if things didn’t change by September 30 “they’ll shut down our government for the second time in two years.” The ask was to remove previously enacted budget caps, raise taxes, and use the additional revenue for more spending. Weekly address,

Democrats are ready to sit down and negotiate with Republicans right now. But it should be over legitimate issues like how much do we invest in education, job training, and infrastructure – not unrelated ideological issues like Planned Parenthood. We need to set our sights higher than that. We need to reverse harmful cuts to middle-class economic priorities, close loopholes that benefit only a fortunate few at the top, and invest more in the things that help our entire economy grow.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans were struggling to move the ball forward due to internal disagreements.

•Conservatives said undercover videos revealed Planned Parenthood conduct so egregious that Congress should eliminate all federal funding for the organization (some $500M per year, much of it via Medicaid reimbursements). As separate legislation on the subject would be blocked, defunding should be provided for in the CR that would be needed to keep the government going. If the Democrats chose to block the CR, Americans would blame them for shutting down the government. Never accept their premise: Only Obama will shut down government, Katie Kieffer,,

•Moderates insisted that a “clean” CR would be necessary because otherwise Democrats would dig in their heels and force a government shutdown that a majority of Americans would blame on the GOP. Senate Republicans working on plan to avoid a shutdown, Kelsey Snell, Washington Post,

Senate Republicans put up a standalone bill to defund Planned Parenthood and then a CR that defunded Planned Parenthood, both of which bills were – as expected - blocked by filibusters. The planned continuation was to offer a clean CR on September 28 (today), which would presumably pass the Senate by a wide margin as Democrats would support it. Dems block spending bill that defunds Planned Parenthood, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,

The big question was what would happen in the House, where conservative Republicans had signaled determination not to go along with any spending measure that funded Planned Parenthood. Unless House Speaker John Boehner solicited Democratic support, which might be a risky move given growing conservative dissatisfaction with his leadership, it seemed unlikely that a clean CR would pass. Spending bill is on track, but shutdown threat persists, Kristina Peterson & Stephanie Armour, Wall Street Journal,

B. Leadership change – On Friday, September 25, House Speaker John Boehner made an announcement that surprised almost everyone (ourselves included). Effective October 30, he would give up the speakership and resign from Congress. Boehner’s quick decision that rattled Washington, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 9/25/15.

Many political leaders responded by lauding Speaker Boehner’s character & leadership, and saying he would be missed. But it didn’t take long for speculation to begin as to the political implications of Boehner’s resignation and who would become the next Speaker.

The president’s comments (in response to a question at an unrelated event) were statesmanlike, albeit a bit self-serving. Remarks by President Obama and President Xi of the People’s Republic of China in joint press conference,

[My] hope is there’s a recognition on the part of the next Speaker -- something I think John understood, even though at times it was challenging to bring his caucus along -- that we can have significant differences on issues, but that doesn't mean you shut down the government. That doesn't mean you risk the full faith and credit of the United States. You don't invite potential financial crises. You build roads and pass transportation bills. And you do the basic work of governance that ensures that our military is operating and that our national parks are open and that our kids are learning. And there’s no weakness in that. That's what government is in our democracy. You don't get what you want 100 percent of the time. And so sometimes you take half a loaf; sometimes you take a quarter loaf. And that's certainly something that I’ve learned here in this office.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck a harshly partisan note. Pelosi: We still have to stop Republicans from shutting down the government, Melanie Hunter,,

The speaker announcing his resignation, that resignation is a stark indication of the disarray of the House Republicans, a demonstration of their obsession with shutting down government at the expense of women’s health and a sign of the failure of the House Republicans to engage in dialogue for the good of American people and for us to move forward.

Some conservative Republicans were delighted about Boehner’s departure, as was evidenced when the news was announced by Senator Marco Rubio at a Values Voter Summit. Conservatives to Boehner: Good riddance, Byron York, Washington Examiner,

Denouncing "outdated leaders" and "the political class," Rubio pointed to Republican defeats like the Iran deal and said the situation in the capital has gotten so bad "that people cannot help but ask: how can it be that we sent a Republican majority to Congress, and yet they're still not able to stop our country from sliding in the wrong direction?" *** then Rubio continued: "We'll see how things progress. Just a few minutes ago, Speaker Boehner announced that he will be resigning — " The cheers quickly drowned Rubio out.

Having decided to step down, Boehner is unlikely to have qualms about working with the Democrats to pass a clean CR this week. Accordingly, a government shutdown on October 1 appears remote. That’s good news for Republicans, we think, for the following reasons:

•Federal funding for Planned Parenthood can’t be ended by defunding legislation because the president would make good on his veto threat. As a general rule, it’s not smart to start fights one can’t win.

•Experience suggests that the American public (as informed by the media) would blame Republicans for the shutdown.

•Planned Parenthood funding isn’t a big enough budget item to justify an overall government shutdown. Before deciding to go down the shutdown road, Republicans should at least make a case that justified doing so.

We’re less enthusiastic about other liberal/big government gambits that may be contemplated, such as sticking a renewal of the lapsed Export-Import Bank charter into the CR or other “must pass” legislation (it’s currently in the highway trust fund bill that the Senate passed at the beginning of August). Truly, the K Street lobbyists never rest! Exiting Boehner could bode well for Ex-Im, Kevin Cirilli, The Hill,

C. The path forward – Here are four steps that are recommended.

FIRST, pass a clean CR and thereby avert a government shutdown. Its text should be inspected carefully for unwelcome baggage.

SECOND, elect the new Speaker. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the current frontrunner, but other candidates will emerge. Conservatives should support whomever they like instead of continuing to snipe at the party leadership without taking responsibility for the results. Boehner’s Speaker sacrifice, Wall Street Journal,

This is the moment for the rebellion caucus to put up or stand down. The Members should organize behind a candidate of their own, put their tactics to a vote among their colleagues, and abide by the result. The worst outcome would be if they continue to use a threat to depose the next Speaker as a way to dictate strategy from the caboose.

THIRD, there should be a serious conversation between the new Speaker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about how the Senate filibuster is being used these days. The current practice not only limits the effectiveness of the Senate, but also – quite inappropriately in our view – disenfranchises the House.

True, members of the House can speak for themselves, but stray complaints simply underscore the fact that the House and Senate Republican leaders have not been working as a team. Lawmaker: Change Senate rules to end Dem filibuster on Iran, Pete Kasperowicz, Washington Examiner,

Just last week, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, criticized McConnell for keeping the rules in place that allow Democrats to prevent consideration of the resolution on Iran. "If the Senate majority leader cannot stand up for the vast majority of the American people, then we do need new leadership," Labrador said.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Senate Republicans should go nuclear; maybe Senate Democrats would take a hint and agree to start showing some restraint in their use of the filibuster, e.g., revert to the historical practice. Also, Republicans were equally at fault while they were in the minority, and whatever understanding may be reached should cut both ways. House GOP has seen enough: “Abandon the modern filibuster,” Pete Kasperowicz,

. . . the 60 votes needed to advance a bill used to be used to stop debate if a senator was actually standing in the chamber and debating. But now, under a rule change in the 1970s, senators can place holds on legislation if they "simply announce their intention to filibuster." Under today's system, the minority can routinely block the work of the majority, the House members added. The resolution says that today, the House can pass legislation that the Senate "may not agree with completely," and as a result, a filibuster prevents the Senate from "making a legislative counteroffer to the House."

FOURTH, the time has come – in fact is long over due – to run the budgeting process in a businesslike manner. To this end, Congress should start moving the 12 appropriation bills that have been blocked by filibusters or otherwise delayed. The gory details were previously reported. Another budget showdown looms,

Here are some suggested talking points for fiscal conservatives: This country can’t afford to keep running up deficits and debt for no good reason – tax increases are a drag on the economy – it’s time to get serious about cutting wasteful government spending – running a nearly $4 trillion per year cost center without effective budget controls is financial malpractice.

And what about a public information campaign against the filibustering of appropriation bills, which has served to prevent the budget resolution (passed by both houses of Congress for the first time since
2009) from being given effect? It’s a much bigger issue than defunding Planned Parenthood, yet it has attracted far less attention. How many people know, for instance, that the defense bill was filibustered last week? Dems kill defense bill, vow to kill abortion defunding, Pete Kasperowicz, Washington Examiner, 9/22/15.

In other words, conservatives should make clear that the object of the exercise is to appropriately fund the government, not to “shut down” anything. An open letter to the next Speaker of the House, Jerald Taylor,,

You [the new Speaker] must clearly and loudly point out that it is both responsible and reasonable to quickly fund each department of the government where all parties can agree. Afterward you should deal with those smaller areas where there are difficulties. These issues may then be based on the merits of the disagreements rather than being based on holding the government hostage and thereby making political points.

What if Congress continues dithering on budgetary matters and another “shutdown deadline” rolls around in December? It’s too early to make predictions, but conservative angst could very well boil over and force a shutdown whether establishment Republicans want one or not. The post-Boehner Congress and Washington's sense of dread, Jonathan Weisman & Michael Shear, New York Times,

Mr. Boehner’s decision is likely to smooth a short-term path around a government shutdown at the end of the month. But the real showdown looms on Dec. 11, when a stopgap spending bill expected to pass this week would expire, meaning Congress and the president would have to find a way to fund the government through next September and raise its borrowing limit.

Bottom line: Getting the appropriation bills done is not simply good management; it’s the only way to eliminate the risk of a bruising battle that would benefit no one.
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