After a week-long recess dominated by the Libyan conflict, Congress returns Monday for its latest round of budget brinksmanship. After a half-dozen stopgap funding bills in as many months, the threat of a government shutdown looms once more, with the lights set to go off April 8 unless the two parties can hammer out a deal hat runs through the end of the fiscal year in September.
Since we've been here before, it seems credulous to take the grim warnings echoing through the corridors of the Capitol entirely at face value. But there's reason for pessimism. The two sides are far apart on the sum to slash from the federal budget over the next seven months. House Republicans are hewing to the $61 billion in spending reductions the chamber supported earlier this year, which, extended over the course of a year, matches the $100 billion they pledged during the campaign. Senate Democrats have reportedly countered with up to $20 billion, on top of the $10 billion the two sides lopped off the budget in the past two short-term continuing resolutions. Negotiations stalled last week, spurring a fusillade of finger-pointing press releases that suggested the two sides were unlikely to ease the deadlock before the hourglass runs out of sand.
Breaking the impasse isn't simply a matter of haggling over numbers and meeting somewhere in the middle. As the Washington Post's Paul Kane reported, a band of House conservatives are insisting that any budget blueprint include many of the amendments known as "riders" added to the House bill. These are not small things. Two separate provisions would de-fund the health-care reform law and Planned Parenthood. Others would gut the EPA and the FCC's new net-neutrality rule. Another prohibits funding for some White House "czars" a shorthand term the media uses to refer to policy wonks which, perhaps because of its Soviet whiff, translates in conservative circles as "threatening person."
For many Democrats, these riders are non-starters. "I think when we begin to allow an ideological agenda that says, what we're really trying to do in this budget is not make progress toward deficit reduction but intentionally target a few long-established programs that have demonstrated [benefits]...I wouldn't stand for that," Democratic Sen. Chris Coons told the FT. But among a large swath of the GOP and not just its famously fractious freshmen ideological hot-buttons like health-care or abortion are more important than the spending cuts themselves. Even the party's pragmatists, who remember the wounds inflicted by the shutdowns of the Gingrich era, may be leery of cutting a deal that could lead to their own demise in 2012. To remind members of their promise to weed out weak-kneed compromisers, Tea Party activists many of whom are nonplussed about the prospect of a shutdown plan to rally outside the Capitol on Thursday.
As Congress trudges toward the deadline for a deal, both sides cast the other as the irresponsible party leading the march. "If they have a plan, what is it?" House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Friday afternoon. "If Democrats don't have a plan, do they intend to shut down the government because they can't agree among themselves? The status quo is unacceptable, and right now that is all Washington Democrats are offering." Boehner's deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, called Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer's hopeful assessment "completely farfetched… If Senators Reid and Schumer insist on shutting down the government because they want to protect every last dollar and cent of federal spending then that will be on their hands." Schumer released his own statement urging House Republicans to "finally stand up to the Tea Party and resume the negotiations that had seemed so full of promise."
At this stage, a certain amount of jockeying is normal. The fight over this year's budget is but one skirmish in a three-part battle royal over the federal budget. In the coming weeks, the GOP will also unveil its 2012 budget blueprint, which party leaders say will tackle entitlement reform. Also looming is a clash over raising the federal debt ceiling, which is projected to reach its limit sometime between mid-April and the end of May. With so much at stake, neither side wants to blink first. Public recrimination may just be part of the process of hashing out a grand bargain in private.
And despite the intransigence, there's a fundamental reason for optimism. If Congress thinks its favorables are dismal now, it knows the howling will only intensify if it shuts off the lights and furloughs hundreds of thousands of workers in a sluggish recovery. A government shutdown helps neither Congress nor its constituents. Which is why, amid the palace intrigue and bleak predictions, it's still likely that the two sides will manage to craft a deal just in time if not to spare the public the pain, then to save themselves.