The shutdown battle: 10 things to watch

The forecast on Capitol Hill this week calls for brinksmanship, heated rhetoric and a climactic ending that could have a major impact on the 2012 elections.

With less than a week to go before the April 8 government shutdown deadline, the Obama administration and House Republican leaders have indicated a deal is within reach. But details are scarce as both sides haven’t publicly agreed on how much funding should be cut for the remainder of the fiscal year. More importantly, it’s unclear which controversial policy riders will be included in a final deal.

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Some lawmakers have told The Hill they expect the government to shut down on Saturday.

Here are 10 things to watch in what surely will be a frenetic and defining week of the 112th Congress:

1: The riders

Politically, the number of cuts is nothing compared to the controversial amendments attached to the House-passed bill. Clearly, they are the biggest hurdles to getting a deal. The right and the left are pressing Congress on various amendments, most notably on defunding the healthcare reform bill and Planned Parenthood. The White House and Democratic leaders have said those riders are dealbreakers.

2: Cracks in party unity

If a deal is reached, the left and the right won’t like it and the tension will test party unity. Last week, eyebrows on Capitol Hill were raised when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) ruled out another short-term continuing resolution while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) kept the option on the table.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last month voted against a two-week stop-gap spending bill while Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) backed it. That dynamic could be in play again, but the media’s attention will be on the Republican side of the aisle, specifically on: Will Tea Party lawmakers in the House and Senate break from their leaders on a grand bargain?

3: Presidential politics

A bipartisan deal will include funding for healthcare reform so GOP leaders should be expecting criticism from 2012 White House hopefuls. “They’ll all have to attack it,” GOP strategist John Feehery recently said.Feehery, a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog, added, “No matter what John Boehner does, he’ll be criticized by these folks, because they’ve got to run against the political establishment, no matter what.”

4: Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint, Michele Bachmann and Mike Pence

These outspoken conservatives are not known for embracing bipartisan compromises and will likely blast any deal endorsed by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). If a government shutdown is averted, GOP leaders will be looking to outmaneuver the loud voices on the right, including powerful right-wing groups that agree with Pence that “it’s time to pick a fight.”

5: The magic number

Vice President Joe Biden said the parties have agreed to cutting $33 billion, though Boehner says there is no deal whatsoever. Some expect that number to increase, but nowhere near the $61 billion called for in the House-passed bill.

6: Confusion

When Biden last week announced Democrats and Republicans had coalesced behind the same number, he cited $73 billion in cuts. But that figure was in comparison to Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request, which was never enacted. The media quickly translated $73 billion into $33 billion of actual cuts.

More confusion will be on tap as both parties look to appease their respective bases. For example, at some point, Republican leaders will have to communicate that the final fiscal 2011 budget bill will not defund Obama’s healthcare law. How they choose to communicate that is loaded with political landmines.

7: Preparations for a shutdown

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration issued guidance to government agencies on a possible shutdown. President Clinton’s administration was more willing to shutter the government than President Obama. But agencies will soon need some help on defining which employees are “essential,” especially because this would be the first government shutdown after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

8: Leverage games

Democrats and Republicans have been seeking leverage every way they can over the past couple of months. That won’t stop this week. Initially, the GOP had the leverage advantage, but the pendulum has swung to the Democrats. After some shrewd decisions in February and the beginning of March, the House Republican move last week to pass its “force of law” bill – essentially seeking to freeze the Senate out of the process – backfired. Senate Republicans criticized it and 15 House Republicans voted against the measure on Friday.

There are factions within the House Republican Conference who believe shutting down the government is the best leverage. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) on Thursday said, “Some, I’m sure, are willing to shut the government down to have their positions prevail.”

9: The fiscal 2012 GOP budget

The new House Republican budget is scheduled to be released on Tuesday, and that’s no accident. Boehner and other leaders are already suggesting the fiscal 2011 budget is old news, making the case that the 2012 budget will take a gigantic bite out of the deficit. From a policy perspective, they have a good point, but urging conservatives to watch a coming attraction before the ending of the fiscal 2011 drama has played out may not work.

10: The 72-hour rule

Should there be a deal, House Republican leaders face a tough choice: Abide by their new 72-hour rule, which allows the public to read legislation before they are voted on, or waive the rule and quickly try to pass it. The former would allow GOP critics plenty of time to go on cable news channels. The latter may further infuriate Tea Party activists, who railed on the House Democratic majority’s decision to pass the massive healthcare reform and climate change bills without giving the public days to review them.