Government shutdown part 2? Democrats line up against stopgap spending bill

Greg Nash

House Democrats of all stripes are lining up against a stopgap spending bill that further entrenches the blunt sequester cuts.

GOP leaders could bring a vote as early as next week on a short-term continuing resolution (CR) likely to adopt the $967 billion sequester-level spending cap urged by many Republicans. But the pushback from Democrats this week has been near universal, with liberals and centrists alike vowing to join party leaders in opposition to any such measure.

“I’m not going to support a short-term CR that leads to a $967 billion level,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, said Tuesday during a press briefing in the Capitol. “I believe that hurts our national security, it hurts our economy and it undermines our responsibility of running government at a level that is productive for our people.”

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The opposition raises the chances of a government shutdown taking place in mid-January if a House-Senate budget conference fails to reach a deal on a broader framework to fund the government and scale back the sequester.

Although House Democrats had voted unanimously in October to reopen the government for three months at the 2013 level of $986 billion — including sequester cuts — most did so reluctantly and only under the premise that Congress would use the cushion of time to win a broader deal to soften sequestration’s effects on an array of domestic and defense programs.

While budget negotiators remain optimistic that they can reach such an agreement before Jan. 15, there’s been little evidence of a breakthrough, prompting GOP leaders to prepare a backstop CR if the talks fall apart.

No stopgap bill has been introduced, but a GOP aide said Tuesday that it would adopt the $967 billion levels for fiscal 2014 included in the 2011 Budget Control Act. 

The threat of even deeper sequester cuts has ignited opposition from Democrats across the ideological spectrum.

“Those numbers are very low — it doesn’t solve our problem, it is just kicking the can down the road,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, a centrist Oregon Democrat. “Personally, as a Blue Dog, I think we should go after the bigger issues.”

Liberals piled on, with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, saying there’s no appetite within the party to cut further into low-income programs. 

“If the whole purpose is to just beat up on poor people, I cannot support that,” Grijalva said Tuesday.

Playing hardball ahead of a potential shutdown comes with political risks, but many Democrats said it’s more important to take a stand.

“Why would Democrats compromise on principle right now?” asked Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.)

If House Democrats stick together in opposing a CR, it would force GOP leaders to corral their restive troops into a nearly unanimous vote to get it through. With 231 Republicans in his conference, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can afford only 15 defections before he must rely on Democratic support.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) noted that Republicans have already struggled this year to pass appropriations bills at the $967 billion level. In the summer, a transportation bill written to that level could not get majority support in the House, and had to be pulled.

“If you can’t get Republicans to agree to that level, it just shows it’s not a number that we can govern with,” Moore said. 

In a change of dynamics, Boehner’s problems in a CR fight might not come from his right flank.

“I would consider voting for the CR, if it’s at sequester levels,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), usually a conservative naysayer, said Tuesday. 

But getting Republican defense hawks and appropriators to go along could be a different matter. There are 26 GOP appropriators and 34 sitting on the Armed Services Committee, many of whom have been vocal critics of the sequester.

Rep. Hal Rogers, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is one such critic. The Kentucky Republican declined Tuesday to weigh in on a CR until he’s seen it. But he suggested that GOP leaders should hold off on their CR plans “to make sure the pressure remains on the [budget] negotiators to do the number by the 13th.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee who has a seat at the table of the budget talks, characterized the negotiations as “going very slow,” and cited 50-50 odds that an agreement would be reached eliminating the need for a CR.

“It’s a jump ball,” he said. “It could go either way.”

Van Hollen said it’s “premature” to talk of CRs, and vowed to oppose any spending bill that comes to the floor this month short of a broad package.

“That would be a symbol of defeat,” Van Hollen said. “We should not leave town until we get an agreement on the budget. After all, it was the mantra around here for a long time, ‘No budget, no pay.’ Our view is, ‘No budget, no vacation.’ 

“There’s no CR required until Jan. 15, and I would oppose any effort to go home before we reach any agreement,” Van Hollen added. “That’s a widely shared view in the caucus.”