Congress down to one-week CR

Greg Nash

Gridlocked over a months-long spending bill, the widely unpopular 113th Congress is trying to see if it is capable of passing a stopgap measure for just one week.

Washington often kicks the can down the road on tough issues; but this time, down the road means not a year or even a few months, as it usually does, but just a handful of working days.

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Having failed to agree on a bill to avoid a government shutdown, lawmakers are now pinning their hopes on a one-week continuing resolution (CR) to keep the lights from going out in Washington on Tuesday at midnight.

But even this measure — a mini-victory for the Democrats because it would fund ObamaCare for a week — is controversial because some Tea Party members vow they will not vote for any measure that allows federal funds to be spent on President Obama’s healthcare reform law.

Some lawmakers say a shutdown looks increasingly likely, because anticipated negotiations between Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have not yet happened.

On Wednesday, there was a striking lack of urgency on both sides of the Capitol. The Senate labored through a procedural motion while many House lawmakers were traveling back into town.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) warned on Wednesday that the likelihood of a government shutdown is the highest it’s been in years, and blamed the lack of bipartisan dialogue.

“This is the highest risk that I’ve seen because I see the least willingness to do what is absolutely essential in democracy, and that is to work together,” Hoyer told reporters.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said Wednesday morning that there were not any talks among Obama, Reid and Boehner.

“I’m not aware of any,” he said.

Schumer earlier in the week had predicted that leadership negotiations would heat up. “There are obviously going to be negotiations going on while this is happening,” he said in an MSNBC interview.

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The Washington Post reported that Reid had asked Obama to abandon efforts to set up a meeting with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders this week. The Senate majority leader has consistently declared that Democrats will not negotiate changes to the Affordable Care Act in exchange for funding government.

Senate Republicans emerging from a meeting Wednesday said they expect Boehner to pass a short-term stopgap, possibly lasting only a week, to avoid a shutdown on Tuesday.

“I think the House could still have time to send something different back, particularly if they sent along with it, a very short-term, like one-week clean [continuing resolution] so there would be no disruption as the longer-term bill was discussed,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) told Fox News on Wednesday.

“Timing is getting tight,” said a senior GOP aide.

However, Michael Steel, the Speaker’s spokesman, declined to endorse that option.

“We’ll deal with whatever the Senate passes when they pass it. There’s no point in speculating before that,” he said.

“We are not going to vote on a clean CR,” said Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. He added that the GOP could also buy time with a funding bill as short as a week “if we’re making progress” toward a longer deal.

“If we can come to some sort of agreement and do a short-term piece while we are working on language, fine. But if not, we’re stuck,” Lankford said.

House Republicans are not likely to come up with a new shutdown strategy until the Senate acts, but they are beginning to put together ideas while taking the temperature of members and finding out what could replace the original demand of defunding ObamaCare, he added.

“I have no idea where [the conference] is on that right now,” Lankford said.

“Look, we’re in a wait mode. The Speaker was very clear that we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) said after emerging from a meeting with leaders. “Obviously we talked about some possibilities, but the Speaker was very close to the chest, and I think that’s wise.”

House GOP lawmakers will meet to discuss their strategy on Thursday morning.

Delaying a showdown over government funding linked to provisions that would defund ObamaCare would not sit well with conservative activists.

“No, it wouldn’t. We’re talking about a CR of a CR? We need to get serious around here,” said Brent Bozell, a prominent conservative activist who has helped build public pressure on Congress to use the stopgap as a vehicle to defund the healthcare law.

“Are we down to one-week budgets? This is where the rubber hits the road,” he said.

A spokesman for Reid said he would wait to see what the House can pass before taking a position on a weeklong stopgap.

“There is a new rumor about what the House is going to pass almost every day,” said Adam Jentleson.

The Senate took a step closer to passing the stopgap Wednesday when the chamber voted unanimously to advance the House-passed resolution. The vote happened soon after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spent more than 21 hours on the Senate floor speaking against the president’s healthcare overhaul.

Reid blamed Cruz for taking Congress to the brink of a shutdown by using up valuable floor time.

“The government is set to shut down in a matter of hours,” he said. “It’s a shame we’re standing here having wasted perhaps two days, most of yesterday and a good part of today, when we could pass what we need to pass very quickly and send it back to the House.”

Reid plans to schedule a vote on an amendment stripping the ObamaCare language from the House-passed stopgap and setting an expiration date of Nov. 15. If 60 senators vote to end debate on the legislation, Reid could rewrite it with a simple majority vote.

Cruz and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have spearheaded an effort to extend debate, which would block Reid from changing it.

Their arguments have failed to persuade prominent Republicans, however.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) have said they will vote to end debate on the measure because it will still include language to defund ObamaCare at the moment of consideration.

Cruz has argued this is a procedural gimmick and that Republicans should oppose any motion that empowers Reid to later revamp the legislation.

The bill faces another hurdle if Republicans raise a budgetary point-of-order objection to the bill because it exceeds allocations in the Budget Control Act.

“It’s likely a budget point of order will be placed against it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Budget Committee.

Senate Republicans typically vote to sustain objections to bills that exceed the spending caps set by the 2011 law.

Reid needs 60 votes to waive such objections. While he could have more trouble corralling Republican votes to break the spending cap, he is likely to succeed, according to a senior GOP aide. 

At the current pace, senators say the Senate will pass the amended stopgap and send it back to the House on Friday or Saturday.

That would leave Boehner with little time to amend it and send it back to the upper chamber to force a compromise. Democrats say if Boehner does not bring the Senate bill to a vote in the House, the government will shut down.

“It’s possible,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) about the likelihood of a shutdown. “It’s really up to Mr. Boehner. If he takes what we pass Sunday and brings it to the floor and gives it his blessing, he’ll get Democrats and moderate Republicans to support it and that will be the end of it.”

— Mike Lillis, Pete Schroeder, Erik Wasson and Jonathan Easley contributed.