Tea party fervor drove the House spending bill through a week of debate that finished with its pre-dawn passage on Saturday. But now that the bill moves to the Democratic-led Senate, it looms as a warm-up to more intense partisan bargaining to come.
I don’t think that Senate will pass these cuts. We will have to negotiate,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Budget Committee, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Nevertheless, Ryan said, Democrats and the White House want to maintain spending at current levels, and Republicans want to send a message that they won’t approve. The Republican bill cuts about $60 billion from domestic discretionary spending; President Obama has said he wants to maintain spending levels, making no cuts, for the rest of this fiscal year.
The question both chambers of Congress and the White House must focus on now is: Where is halfway? It will be a difficult puzzle for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to sort out. He’s spent much of his political career pushing Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to the verge of being shut down as a repository for spent nuclear fuel. Amid its grab bag of subtractions, the House bill removes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s money to do that.
On the other side, the Republicans are deeply dug in against the Obama budget. Ryan said, “We don’t want to accept this — these extremely high elevated levels — and so we’re going to have to start negotiating on these things, not just with the Senate, but also with the president, as well.”
The $60 billion cut will be the prime negotiating point in the Senate, but the Republicans’ bill contains other provisions likely to stiffen Democratic spines. These proposals, springing from the conservative base, include:
Temporarily suspending U.S. EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.
Preventing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from moving forward with its planned Climate Service.
Withholding U.S. funding from the international body that does climate research.
Preventing EPA from implementing a rule to let cars use ethanol blends up to E15 — a fuel that’s 15 percent ethanol.
Forbidding the president from hiring “czars” to work on climate policy or negotiate at global climate talks.
Shutdown or compromise?
Because this budget measure involves the current fiscal year, Republicans now must agree to a short funding extension, probably at present spending levels, or risk being blamed for shutting down federal services when current spending authority ends March 4.
“I think they’re probably just going to come up with something short-term,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), an Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairman, said Friday of an extension, potentially lasting two weeks. “I think it’s going to get down to the wire, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The reason is that the Republicans’ bill faces barricades in the Senate and the White House. Even if a few conservative senators support the bill, the Senate won’t propose, digest and reconcile a spending bill by March 4.
Moreover, the White House has made clear that even if the Senate passed the House bill, Obama will veto it. In a statement (pdf) last week, Obama said “a bill that undermines critical priorities or national security” or “curtails the drivers of long-term economic growth and job creation” will get vetoed. He underlined the sentence.
Some observers said the appetite for compromise will arrive, sooner or later.
Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, rated the forecast for the Republicans’ spending bill as “not very good in its current form.”
“In the end, when they negotiate, there’s going to be some things that Obama has no choice but to draw the line on,” he said. For example, “any broad stamp that says no regulating of greenhouse gases probably gets a veto pen.”
Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, called the Republicans’ bill “prime veto bait” and said that if they don’t withdraw some of their attacks on environmental policy, they’ll pay at the ballot box.
Democrats will say, “These were not only votes against public health; they’re votes against job growth, innovation and competitiveness,” Weiss said.
That’s what they said in 1996, he said, after the House led a similar campaign under the leadership of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to slice the federal budget — and it worked for Democrats then.
Prospect for a Republican revolt
“My hope and my expectation is that the Senate will rip up this bill and start over,” he said. He expects the Senate to write a “clean” bill that focuses on the money aspects and doesn’t try to legislate issues like CO2, mercury, lead and sulfuric acid through the power of the purse.
Some analysts predict House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could face an uprising among his freshman class, composed of 87 Republicans, if he agrees to a short extension to give the Senate time to craft a continuing resolution that lasts through Sept. 30.
“I think Boehner has to be willing to agree to a shutdown, or be willing to shut down the government just to show the tea party people that he is willing to do it,” said Stan Collender, a partner at the public relations firm Qorvis and a longtime budget watcher. “He can’t be the one who blocks it, because he might be dethroned as speaker within seconds.”
But suspending government services can be messy, and Democrats have been laying the groundwork to make sure the GOP is seen as the instigator. President Obama and Senate leaders have warned that a shutdown could delay Social Security payments to seniors, close national parks and interrupt services supporting American troops.
Impacts of the Clinton-era shutdown
The last time a budget impasse forced agencies to close, twice in November and December 1995, President Clinton successfully blamed congressional Republicans for ushering in the partial suspension. More than 1 million federal employees — about half of the work force — were furloughed altogether during the dispute over spending for Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.
If Boehner softens his position before March 4, he might avoid the stain of closing government offices, but that action could invite different complications. House conservatives may feel exposed to the constituents who demanded that they not fall into the spending habits of Washington veterans. And a federal shutdown might arrive anyway just a few weeks later, when the temporary spending bill expires.
When voters start feeling the absence of government services, conservative lawmakers might find compromise more attractive, said Collender.