Chances up for federal shutdown

The chances of a government shutdown are on the rise.

With less than three weeks to strike a deal before government funding for the year is scheduled to expire, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are moving in opposite directions.  

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Lawmakers from both parties stress they want to avoid a rerun of the stalemate that led to a shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996. But the rhetoric on spending has escalated, and Democratic and GOP officials are already prepping for the blame game.

Positions have hardened after a revolt last week by House conservatives, who forced GOP leaders to nearly double their proposed spending cuts for 2011.

 If the cuts pass the House, Senate Democrats say they are dead on arrival in the upper chamber. 

 “I think the direction of last week is the wrong direction and puts us closer on the path to a shutdown,” said William Hoagland, a former senior aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).  

Hoagland, who also served as staff director under former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), hopes that Senate deliberations will defuse a potential crisis.   

“That’s why we have a Senate and a process we’ll go through, and cooler minds will prevail at some point and end up with a solution that will not necessitate a shutdown,” he said.

Government funding is due to run out on March 4, giving Democratic and GOP leaders little time to work out a compromise.  

Scott Lilly, who formerly served as the Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said a government shutdown looks “more likely.”

“Given the date now, there’s no question we’ll need a short-term [continuing resolution (CR)],” he said. “That’s the move that I think will be very difficult and raises the prospect of a shutdown.”

House Republicans are leaving open the possibility of a CR, which would serve as a stopgap measure until a bipartisan deal is struck. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, said Tuesday that Republicans would approve a short-term funding measure to provide more time for budget talks if there is an impasse.

But some on the right oppose passing a CR because it keeps spending at current levels.

For House GOP leaders, sending a CR to President Obama’s desk would require even steeper cuts to make up for the short-term extension if they stick with their campaign pledge to cut $100 billion “in the first year alone.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill that Republican leaders should stare Obama down. 

“If [Republican] members of the House are sending signals that we are afraid of the president shutting down the government, then the president will get everything he’s willing to fight for,” he said.

Democrats say they are open to cuts to current spending levels, though some believe they will repeatedly reject the House GOP’s plan and seek to wait out Republicans by calling for a series of CRs.

During a teleconference last week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “Time is wasting while House Republicans argue among themselves about how extreme a proposal to send to the Senate. We are willing to meet the Republicans in the middle on spending, but they keep lurching to the right.

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“And this infighting is causing delays that will take these negotiations right up to the deadline and risk a government shutdown. And that seems to be exactly what many Republicans want.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fired back at Schumer, saying the only ones talking about a shutdown are Democrats. 

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday said, “Any time that we propose a spending cut, it seems that Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Harry Reid and others scream, ‘Shutdown.’”

Boehner and McConnell have declined to rule out the possibility of a government shutdown in recent television interviews. Doing so would hurt the GOP’s leverage with the White House. Both have emphasized their intent is to reduce spending, not shutter the government.

 Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, led a budget seminar for nearly 40 House freshmen before the start of the new Congress. 

She believes freshman conservatives are itching to make a dramatic statement by shutting down the government. 

 “It was clear there was a group of new members who in my mind were more concerned with making statements than working with their own leadership to solve the nation’s problems,” said Bilmes. “Nothing I’ve seen in the last week changes my mind.

“There are certainly some elements within the Tea Party group that are looking to make a dramatic statement.”  The House is moving forward with its 2011 spending plan this week, though GOP congressional leaders are considering postponing a showdown with Democrats for at least several weeks, according to aides.  

That way, the stare-down with the White House would coincide with the debate on increasing the nation’s debt limit. If embraced, this strategy would give Republican leaders another bargaining chip in the high-stakes negotiation over the debt limit, maximizing their political leverage, some GOP sources say. 

 However, this would necessitate the passing of at least one CR. 

 “I’ve heard that idea,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “I don’t know how this is going to play out. I’m going to defer to the leadership on strategy.”

A senior Senate Republican aide stressed that GOP leaders are mulling separate battles on the CR to fund government for the rest of 2011 and legislation to increase the debt limit. 

 “Also being discussed is using each as an opportunity of its own,” said the GOP aide. “Senate Republicans want to cut spending any way they can.”

 McConnell said he and his Republican colleagues will unify around what emerges from the House. It’s not clear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would allow a vote on the House Republican proposal. 

 The House plan is expected to attempt to defund the Obama administration’s implementation of healthcare reform, a non-starter in the Democratic-led Senate that could trigger a veto threat from the White House. 


Sean J. Miller contributed to this article.