Congressional Republican leaders returned to Washington this week with no clear plan for extending government funding later this month that risks shutting down federal agencies amid a growing outcry from conservatives ready for a fight over funding Planned Parenthood. The once-normal process of approving a stopgap bill that keeps the federal government operating on the previous year’s fiscal budget has become anything but routine during House Speaker John A. Boehner’s five-year tenure. This latest showdown, like its recent predecessors, is another example that brinksmanship -- involving countdown clocks and advisories to federal workers about the possible expiration of funding on Sept. 30 -- is the new normal.
If you want to know if congressional Republicans are about to create a new crisis, it's generally wise to watch Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to see if he's huddling with House GOP lawmakers. Because when the far-right senator gets together with far-right House members to plot and scheme -- usually to the consternation of Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team -- contentiousness tends to follow.
With this pattern in mind, it was of great interest to see Cruz once again extend invitations to his House Republican allies, this time to discuss whether (and how) to shut down the government again. The gathering comes roughly two years after Cruz hosted another chat, advising House GOP members to ignore their leadership and follow his lead on shutting down the government.
Presumably, actual Republican leaders would be countering such chatter with their own plan to avoid a shutdown, but as the Washington Post reports, Boehner & Co. simply have no idea what to do next.
Put a radicalized party in charge of a branch of government and the "new normal" is watching Congress careen from one self-imposed crisis to the next, with little to no actual governing taking place.
The pieces are now in place for a replay of the GOP's 2013 shutdown. Cruz is marshaling his House forces; Boehner and his leadership team have no idea how to move forward; and far-right lawmakers have a simple-but-unobtainable goal. The question is whether this time, we should expect a different result.
The beleaguered Speaker told reporters this morning, "The goal here is not to shut down the government. The goal is to stop these horrific practices of organizations selling baby parts."
As a substantive matter, this is obviously nonsense -- "selling baby parts" is illegal, and that's not at all what Planned Parenthood has done -- but as a political matter, is also non-constructive nonsense. If Boehner is serious about averting another GOP-imposed crisis, he probably ought to start being a little more responsible.
Of course, the more responsibly he behaves, the more likely it is the extremists in his conference will try to oust him -- so Boehner's in an unenviable spot.
Looking ahead, policymakers have already abandoned the unrealistic idea of actually completing the appropriations process before the Sept. 30 deadline. The options, at least for now, are a stopgap spending measure that keeps the government's lights on or another Republican shutdown.
The reason the former is less likely than the latter is Planned Parenthood funding: many GOP lawmakers simply won't support any spending bill, including a temporary measure, that provides funding to the health care organization, despite the fact that there's no evidence of Planned Parenthood wrongdoing. Democrats, meanwhile, won't go along with a hostage strategy that undermines women's health care access.
In the Senate, even many Republicans are uncomfortable with the shutdown scheme -- this is especially true of vulnerable incumbents who are up for re-election next year -- and in the upper chamber, Cruz has few friends. But there's real drama in the House, where the appetite for a showdown is great.
The Washington Post asked four congressional budget experts yesterday for their predictions. Each of them said the odds of a shutdown are "well over 50 percent."
Watch this space.
Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece.