This August’s $1 billion question in Washington continues to be whether the government is heading for a shutdown. The conundrum embroils the two parties in internecine battles, pits spending priorities against political tactics and leaves the affected federal workforce to largely watch from the sidelines.
Interviews with Washington insiders show all agree the prospects for a shutdown are real. Congress left town for its August recess, leaving only nine legislative days in the session before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. No appropriations bills have reached President Obama’s desk—the House has voted only on five, the Senate only on one.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has sworn off talk of a “grand bargain” to resolve the fiscal stalemate, and Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, while conducting an outreach blitz on Capitol Hill, has reported no word of progress on a concrete budget deal.
What is different this go-round, observers agree, is that experienced dealmaker Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appears too preoccupied with a reelection challenge (both in his party’s primary from the right and in the general election) to climb to a summit with Democrats. Also, the ongoing disputes over taxes, appropriations and entitlements have been overshadowed in recent weeks by a rump group of Republicans who see this fall as their “last chance” to repeal Obama’s signature achievement, the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
“In September, Congress will have the opportunity to defund Obamacare -- the disastrous health care law, which is killing jobs and hurting the health care system,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in an Aug. 5 radio broadcast aimed at mobilizing a “grass-roots army” to take advantage of the fall budget climax. “The only way we can win this debate is if the American people rise up and demand it,” said Cruz, who has joined with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a host of Tea Party and other rightist groups such as the Club for Growth and Freedom Works.
“The way things stand right now, it’s very likely we will have a government shutdown,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. “We’re seeing a growing number of House Republicans since they’ve been back home saying there’s a need to use the year-end spending bill to stop implementation of Obamacare. Some want to defund it, others want delay, but the consensus is there has to be action.”
But the coming clash, Holler cautions, is not all the Republicans’ making. “Democrats aren’t happy with the spending levels and want more” than is called for in the 2011 Budget Control Act, he said.
Yet, many Republicans consider a shutdown over Obamacare political suicide. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- the GOP presidential standard-bearer just nine months ago -- on Aug. 6 warned the crowd at a New Hampshire Republican donor event against the strategy. "I badly want Obamacare to go away, and stripping it of funds has appeal,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “But we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government. What would come next when soldiers aren't paid, when seniors fear for their Medicare and Social Security, and when the FBI is off duty?"
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in late July released results of a Congressional Research Service legal study he requested concluding that “if the government were shut down, funding for Obamacare would still continue. In other words, shutting down the federal government does not shut down Obamacare.”
Several Republican governors are equally wary. “I have made the case that Obamacare is not good for the economy,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the National Governors Association last weekend. “But I have some real concerns about potentially doing something that would have a negative impact on the economy just for the short term -- I think there are other ways to pursue this,” he said, according to The New York Times.
“The House Republican leadership wants to avoid a shutdown,” said Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and columnist for the Washington Examiner. He noted that some conservative commentators have divided the Republicans into the “suicide caucus” and the “surrender caucus.” Sen. Cruz, he said, feels the urgency because he believes once the law’s subsidies kick in, “no one will ever get rid of it,” which may or may not be true.
“I don’t think a shutdown will happen,” said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. “I’m a strong supporter of an emerging consensus that it is reasonable to ask for a year’s delay” in Obamacare, a position that many Democrats, such as Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, favor.
“I can see the president signing a bill that delays it because he’s already delayed the law’s mandates for larger businesses,” Norquist said. “For Republicans, a delay would be an implicit statement that the law doesn’t work, and for Democrats -- do they really want to go into the 2014 elections with Obamacare in place?” The president will never sign a bill defunding health reform, Norquist said, so “it’s a mistake for Republicans to make it a nonnegotiable demand and try to humiliate Obama by asking him to give up the crown jewels and admit he’s been wrong.”
Longtime Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein, also of AEI, was less optimistic about avoiding a shutdown. “I don’t see a grand bargain, though one would be nice,” he said in an interview. “Who’s going to do the bargain? Mitch McConnell is not in any way shape or form going to play the role he did in [last December’s] fiscal cliff talks, and there’s nobody in the House capable of doing anything.” Many Republicans who were in Congress during the 1994-1995 government shutdown -- Coburn and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., for instance -- “have all called the shutdown idea insanity,” Ornstein noted, “but others [lack] the basic level of rationality or sanity” to head it off.
The only hope in Ornstein’s view is “Obi-Wan McCain,” or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who might find 12 or 20 Republicans in the Senate to join Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a “short-term extension” of a continuing resolution to keep the funding going. “If the Senate puts enough pressure on the House, maybe Boehner takes the leap and it limps through with mostly Democrats,” Ornstein said. “But as for what is the most likely outcome, you lose me.”
A short-term extension of an omnibus spending bill, perhaps two to three months, is the likely outcome predicted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, according to longtime Senate Republican budget aide Steve Bell.
“But people who think this is easy to do underestimate the extreme splits in both parties and both chambers,” he said, splits that worsen, he noted, every time a so-called “gang of eight” tries to reach a deal out of view of the rank and file members.
Such an extension, Bell said, would give lawmakers time to also complete a deal on extending unemployment insurance and food stamps, both programs that expire Oct. 1.
The August recess will not, Bell added, bring much progress because during town halls and meetings with constituents in their home districts, lawmakers “simply appeal to their base voters, who are the ones who show up to vote in a nonpresidential year.”
Bell also confessed that he doesn’t “really know how it’s going to turn out. But neither do they.”