On the brink yet again

Let’s hope the American people enjoyed their two-week respite from government on the brink. Between the near-shutdown of the government last spring, the hot brinkmanship of summer that nearly brought us to default, the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration and, now, the prospect of another government shutdown over disaster relief, there have been few days in between standoffs.

Republicans running the House of Representatives returned from the August recess having digested the dismal poll results that followed the bitter debt-ceiling debate. They had paid as steep a political price as President Obama and were prepared to govern like grown-ups from now on. Republican members described their new approach as a pivot away from confrontation and attacks to passing bills and talking jobs. They knew Obama wanted to pick a fight with them and blame them, and they weren’t going to let him. 

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Of course, that was two weeks ago, before Obama insisted they “pass this jobs bill now,” a plan for another half-trillion in deficit spending. It was before he proposed a deficit-reduction package that assumes not only cuts that have already been agreed to but also phasing out two wars already being phased out and, of course, taxing the rich. Gotcha — the GOP was crying “class warfare” before the month was through.

As House Republicans prepare to pass bills and talk jobs, they are working behind the scenes to manage the chronic dissent over spending that keeps them from passing bills and talking jobs. They will break their pledge to pass 12 separate spending bills by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 and avoid a large last-minute omnibus bill like Democrats did, and are now busy taking steps to do exactly that. Yet a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government through November is now in jeopardy due to a clash over funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Ten GOP senators joined Senate Democrats and voted for nearly $7 billion in emergency spending to help cover damage from Hurricane Irene and the many other natural disasters that prompted Obama to declare an emergency in 48 states so far this year alone. House Republicans instead propose to partially offset $3.65 billion in FEMA funding by cutting into a Department of Energy loan program for fuel-efficient carmakers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that “we are not going to cave on this,” but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was for disaster relief before he was against and then for it again, said that “no one wants to stand in the way of disaster relief monies that are needed.” Though GOP leaders don’t have the votes to back down, Cantor added, “No one’s intending to bring about a government shutdown. The country has sort of seen enough of that.”

House Republicans might get lucky if the 10 GOP senators who voted for Reid’s disaster funding bill last week are pressured to oppose it. But the road to passing an annual spending bill for fiscal 2012 is full of political landmines and constant confrontation. The current Health and Human Services bill can’t get out of committee because two Republicans are demanding that spending levels be brought to those written in the House-passed budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) instead of levels agreed to in the debt-ceiling deal.

As this shutdown looms, the American people can take comfort in Congress avoiding one last week when it passed what was the 22nd short-term FAA funding extension and the eighth surface transportation funding extension. It bought four months until the next fight. 

Now that’s progress.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.