Syria isn’t the only crisis on Congress’ to-do list

Updated
Syria isn't the only crisis on Congress' to-do list
Syria isn't the only crisis on Congress' to-do list
Associated Press

It seems like a long time ago, but as recently as mid-August there was a spirited fight within the Republican Party about the looming budget crisis. Far-right lawmakers wanted to use the threat of a government shutdown to pressure Democrats into defunding the federal health care system – an idea destined for failure – while party leaders balked.

U.S. policy in Syria quickly became the dominant issue on the political landscape, but in the back of our minds, there was an awkward realization: the budget fight had been pushed from the front page, but it hadn’t gone away. Indeed, folks stopped talking about this, but nothing had changed – GOP extremists still demanded a shutdown; the GOP mainstream still hated the idea.

This is coming to a head very soon, and the House Republican leadership has an idea on how to get themselves out of this mess. As Sahil Kapur reports, GOP leaders will make their pitch to the caucus today.

First, the House would pass a continuing resolution to continue funding the government at sequester levels, coupled with an amendment to defund Obamacare. When the package is sent to the Senate, it would be required to vote on the defunding measure first. If the Senate votes it down, and then passes the CR with Obamacare funding, it goes straight to President Barack Obama’s desk.

No confrontation. No attempt to force Democrats to back down. No need to go back to the House for a vote on a clean continuing resolution. But conservatives get a vote.

Just to clarify, there would be only one vote in the House – members would vote for the spending measure, with the anti-Obamacare measure tacked on as a sort of appendage. The Senate, meanwhile, would hold two votes – one to reject the House package, the other to approve the House package without the healthcare add-on.

In effect, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the rest of the leadership want to put on a little political theater in the hopes of making their far-right colleagues feel better about themselves. Everyone would know in advance that the Senate would reject the effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, but the plan allows for Republicans to cast this vote with the knowledge that they wouldn’t actually have to shut down the government.

It’s a win-win, right? Conservatives get to say they voted to “defund Obamacare”; Democrats would get to keep the government’s lights on; and GOP leaders would get to placate the radicals among them without any real adverse consequences.

At least, that’s the idea. The trouble comes when we take a closer look.

First, there’s a very real possibility that right-wing lawmakers won’t appreciate feeling patronized by their own leaders, and simply won’t accept the plan as a credible solution. Indeed, this isn’t just idle speculation: “Conservative Republicans who caught wind of the plan on Monday told The Hill it was unacceptable.”

These folks don’t want a symbolic, feel-good gesture; these folks actually want to force a budget crisis in the hopes of denying millions of Americans access to affordable health care. Republican leaders are afraid of the fallout of a government shutdown, but rank-and-file Republicans don’t give a darn.

And if House Republicans balk at their own leadership’s ploy, it means Boehner & Co. will find themselves dependent on House Democratic votes to avoid a shutdown. Do you think Dems might want a little something out of this deal to save the Speaker’s butt? Count on it.

Which then leads us to the second problem: under this approach, spending levels are still at sequestration levels. Why is that important? Because the sequester is a painfully stupid and destructive policy that’s hurting the country for no reason.

In August, Boehner said “none of us like” the sequestration policy. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the sequester “is not the best way to go about spending reductions.” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the sequester is “unrealistic,” “ill-conceived,” and a policy that “must be brought to an end.”

And yet, the Speaker’s plan is to effectively tell the right, “You’re not getting the shutdown you wanted, but at least you’re getting the destructive sequestration cuts we pretend not to like.”

There’s a real chance that rank-and-file Republicans oppose the idea because they want to shut down the government, while rank-and-file Democrats balk because they hate the sequester.

All of this will have to be dealt with fairly soon, since the government runs out of money on Sept. 30. Once that’s done, we then get to move on to congressional Republicans threatening to crash the global economy on purpose with another debt-ceiling hostage crisis.

Sequester, Government Shutdowns, Budget and Sequestration

Syria isn't the only crisis on Congress' to-do list

Updated