Forget about the Republican push to repeal Obamacare. The real reason we're facing a government shutdown on Monday is because House Republicans and Senate Democrats have radically different ideas of how to deal with sequestration and spending in fiscal year 2014, which begins on October 1. In fact, we've been headed down the path to a shutdown for four months already.
The odd thing about the current "fiscal fight" is how little discussion there has been about what Congress actually wants to do with the FY 2014 budget, either publicly or behind closed doors. No bipartisan negotiations on fiscal issues are actually happening right now, and there's barely a whisper about sequestration.
Instead, Republicans have used threats of a shutdown and a default to try to make headway on issues that have little to do with our long-term fiscal health—Obamacare, first and foremost, then the laundry list of issues (net neutrality! Keystone pipeline!) they tried and failed to attach to the debt ceiling on Thursday.
The chaos that's ensued inside the GOP as a result has made the possibility of a shutdown and default even more dramatic. But we've been headed in this direction since April 2013—the last time there was hope for actual negotiations between House Republicans and Senate Democrats over the budget.
That's when Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, and his counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray, were meeting to set up what's known as a conference committee that would fast-track a compromise between the House and Senate budgets. It's a part of what's known as "regular order"—standard operating procedure for Congress that Republicans spent four years clamoring for. But the differences between the two budgets were vast: House Republicans passed a $967 billion budget that increased defense spending above sequestration levels by making huge additional cuts to domestic programs, while Senate Democrats simply ignored sequestration altogether in their $1.058 trillion budget.
Ryan couldn't get Murray to commit to a framework that locked in certain changes beforehand—perhaps unsurprising, given the $91 billion difference between the two budgets. Democrats tried to move forward with a budget conference anyway in April, but Republicans blocked them from doing so.
That was the last time that Republicans and Democrats were trying to work out a budget compromise in something approximating good faith—and the end of the GOP's calls for "regular order." Since then, both chambers have simply turned inward to work on the individual 2014 spending bills that make up the entire budget. And shortly before the August crisis, House Republicans suddenly hit upon a budget crisis within their own party: House Republicans couldn't pass a transportation and housing bill that made the draconian cuts they had previously agreed to, as moderates rebelled. The incident disclosed a fundamental flaw within the House GOP budget strategy: House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers blasted his own colleagues for insisting on "austere" cuts that they couldn't actually pass.
The House's meltdown in July seemed to suggest that Senate Democrats might be able to make some headway in raising spending and undoing sequestration cuts. But in the following weeks, Republicans instead turned the budget debate into a quest to defund Obamacare—a campaign that conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz led, but which House Speaker John Boehner ultimately enabled by attaching defunding to the stopgap budget.
The result has been a battle for the soul of the GOP, as Republicans have turned fiscal deadlines into bargaining chips--a tactic that threatens to imperil the U.S. economy and American credibility in the global marketplace. The fight has also taken all the attention off the budget itself, where the absence of debate threatens to turn sequestration into the new normal.
Most Democrats have grudgingly agreed to six more weeks of funding under 2013 sequestration levels, which the Senate-passed budget preserved on Friday—and that would their best-case scenario at this point. Not everyone is thrilled, but in comparison to altering Obamacare, shutting down the government, or negotiating over the debt ceiling, it is the bare minimum that Congress can and must do, President Obama stressed on Friday.
"My message to Congress is this: Do not shut down the government, do not shut down the economy,” the president said. “Pass a budget on time. Pay our bills on time.”
But whether intentionally or not, it could ultimately help Republicans shift the goalposts in terms of the actual 2014 budget, some Democrats fear. "One could say it is a great bait and switch. We're talking about Obamacare, which really has no place in this debate at all. In the meantime, they're giving us a very low number—they're enshrining sequestration," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat. "The Senate number, which is $70 billion higher, that would be the old Ryan budget number, which we used to say was terrible. Now if only we could get that high."
"I believe we are going to see sequestration made permanent, and I believe quite frankly that's where so many in the Republican ranks want to go," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro. The fight over Obamacare is "a sideshow to where we go on sequestration."
Democrats could still regain fiscal leverage if Boehner decides to cut a deal with Democrats and abandon the conservative flank of the GOP he's been beholden to. Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi has already said she'd be willing to "split the difference" between the House GOP and Senate Democratic budgets by passing a $1.17 trillion bill. But Democrats aren't going to even pick up the phone until Republicans take their Obamacare demands and debt-ceiling threat off the table.
As a Boehner aide told reporters on Friday: "The president has not called the speaker at all this week."