Shutdown odds rising as Obama, Congress entrench on spending

The odds of a government shutdown this autumn are increasing, with the White House and congressional leaders both digging in.

On Capitol Hill, partisans on both sides of the aisle are demanding that the next federal budget include provisions their political opponents will find objectionable.

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Twelve Republican senators — including likely 2016 presidential candidates Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — have said they will not sign off on any spending bill that includes funding for the president’s signature health care law. And as of Friday, at least 69 House Republicans had signed on to a yet-to-be-sent letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) demanding that a continuing resolution defund ObamaCare in its entirety.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), meanwhile, vowed to do “everything within my ability” to oppose a budget that maintains sequester-level spending.

Moreover, The Washington Post reported Friday that senior White House officials were weighing a strategy by which President Obama would threaten a veto of any bill that did not roll back the sequester. Administration officials have also signaled that the president would definitively veto any legislation that provided deeper cuts than those already in place with the sequester.

There has not been a government shutdown in nearly two decades, and both parties are wary of the damage the move would do to the economy — and their poll numbers. But a unique confluence of events is increasing the likelihood that come Oct. 1, the doors to the federal government will be shuttered.

Unlike in years past, lawmakers lack the electoral incentive to strike a deal. Obama has won re-election, and appears less willing to compromise his economic principles merely in the interest of striking a deal.

“I think they’re in a position, and I’m urging my House members to be in a position, of a much stronger, less flexible agreement with policies that we believe undermine the operations of our government, our national security and our creditworthiness,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer  (D-Md.) told the Post.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans say they they are likely to pick up seats in 2014, after retaining their majority in the House last year despite Obama’s commanding win over Mitt Romney. The biggest threat in districts that have been gerrymandered to ruby red is from the right, and a shutdown provides the opportunity for sitting lawmakers to prove their conservative credentials.

Influential conservative advocacy groups, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, have circulated letters encouraging leadership to oppose any law that funds the president’s health care plan. The implied threat is that any lawmaker who backs a bill leaving ObamaCare in place is likely to face a well-financed primary threat.

Arkansas Rep. Tim Griffin (R) told The Hill that the White House's threats "might" embolden frustrated Republicans to add their names to the list of lawmakers demanding full defunding of ObamaCare.

Republicans are interested in repealing at least part of the sequester — the deep cuts to the Pentagon and the defense industry. To do so, the GOP is proposing deeper cuts to federal programs that Democrats support.

“They bust through the Budget Control Act on the defense side and bring defense numbers to the pre-sequester levels,” said a Democratic aide of the House GOP spending bills. “They do that by cutting everything else down to far below post-sequester levels.”

The surest sign lawmakers are preparing for a shutdown may be the preemptive spin from both sides, with neither wanting to be punished by voters in the increasingly likely chance no deal is struck.

Boehner’s office has hounded the White House throughout the week for refusing to categorically take a shutdown off the table.

Spokesman Brendan Buck said the president was pursuing a “lose-lose strategy” of “either a tumultuous government shutdown or further job losses as a result of tax hikes.”

On Friday, Boehner spokesman Don Seymour issued a finger-wagging response to the Post report.

"This emerging White House strategy is consistent with recent administration threats to veto any spending bill unless Congress agrees to the president’s demand for a broader budget deal with higher taxes and higher spending – the type of explicit threat to shut down the government rarely seen in Washington,” Seymour said.

A leadership source said that Boehner had an inkling that the White House would pursue this strategy given prior veto threats.

"The White House signaled in June they may go down this path when they issued those two SAPs threatening to veto our VA/milcon and one other appropriations bill unless Congress agreed to the president's demand for a broader budget deal with higher taxes and higher spending," the source explained to The Hill.

Griffin was apoplectic Friday upon learning of the new White House strategy, saying the threat came “completely out of left-field literally and figuratively.”

"It strikes me as completely other-worldish. You've got a president who is pledging to shut down the government if the Congress passes spending bills at the levels he set," Griffin said. "I don't know what to say except, I guess they are flailing ... this is mind-boggling."
 
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said it “makes no sense” for Republicans to threaten a shutdown.

“That would suck a lot of the momentum out of our nascent economic recovery,” Earnest said. “And there's no reason that Washington should be in the business of throwing up obstacles to our economic recovery. In fact, the President believes that Washington should be in the business of trying to figure out what we can do to actually make it easier for the private sector to continue to lead our recovery in the right direction.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.