The final week before the August recess in a non-election year: Customarily, it’s the occasion for climactic votes on some of the most important matters of the year. This time, it will come and go with little more than a rhetorical torrent about how little’s been done to justify a five-week vacation.
Two years ago, a melodramatic eleventh-hour deal averted a government default but ultimately spawned the sequester. Two years before that, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court. In the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the get-out-of-town votes completed the last comprehensive rewrite of federal energy policy.
But in the coming days, the most substantive news will be clearing a hiding-in-plain-sight compromise to hold down student loan interest rates, one month after busting a deadline and making millions of college kids anxious.
That anticlimax will leave plenty of time for lawmakers to raise a self-aggrandizing fuss about how they really ought to stick around and start negotiating to avoid the next potential budget catastrophe. Members from both parties will join in, safe in the knowledge they won’t get their stated wish because nothing is more sacrosanct to Congress than summer break.
That “district work period” on the House calendar for the final week of September? Not so much.
When the lights get turned back on at the Capitol on Sept. 9, the two chambers will be in session for just eight days before House members are due to depart again, not to return until Sept. 30, the final day of fiscal 2013.
At the moment, it’s impossible to see how an agreement to keep the government open for the start of the new budget year can get done in those two weeks, given the Republican disorganization about how to approach the deadline and the resistance of the president and congressional Democrats to whatever the GOP might cook up.
But it’s also impossible to imagine House GOP leaders concluding it’s in their team’s political interest to leave Washington unless at least an initial stopgap deal gets done.
Republicans are headed toward 2014 with what looks like an insurmountable lead in the House, given their 16-vote cushion and the strong record of the party outside the Oval Office gaining seats in the second-term midterm. And they have a clear, if narrow, path to gain the six seats they’ll need to win back the Senate. An enormous political miscalculation of their own making looks to provide the only opportunity for them to lose the House, and the best opportunity to squander their Senate chances.
Countenancing the first partial government shutdown in almost two decades, by walking away from the table one week early, would surely fit the bill.
Assuming they avoid that mistake, Republicans would still have to worry intently about being blamed if a shutdown ultimately happens, as their predecessors were in 1995-96. Even more problematic for them would be deciding to revive debt limit brinkmanship, witnessing financial markets panic or the first government default — and then getting the lion’s share of public scorn.
Plenty of rank-and-file Republicans, many eager to inoculate themselves against primary challenges on their right, still sound willing to take those risks at the moment. How else to explain the idea of holding government operations hostage until Obama gives up on implementing the health care overhaul that’s very likely to stand as his most important domestic achievement.
Soon after that strategy bubbled to the surface last week — with letters signed by one-quarter of the House GOP and one-third of the Senate GOP — it seemed to lose altitude rapidly: Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas rescinded his support and Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, one of Speaker John A. Boehner’s best buddies in Washington, denounced it as “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”
But the threat isn’t going away so long as it’s got the imprimatur of all three senators most focused on winning the presidency in 2016. And Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul aren’t likely to back off until they put their mutual-base-boosting proposal to an unsuccessful vote.
The assumption is that such a roll call will break the September fever and allow enactment of a continuing resolution that puts agencies and departments on autopilot for a time. (A CR lasting more than a month would effectively merge the spending debate with what to do about the debt ceiling.)
Most immediately, the House GOP and Senate Democrats need to bridge their 9 percent disagreement over what to appropriate for the new year — the $90 billion difference between sticking with the sequester, or not.
Eight GOP senators met twice last week with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to discuss possible components of a deal. The talk focused on two ideas for curbing entitlements that have been central to budget deliberations for two years now because they enjoy decent measures of bipartisan support: the Social Security cost-of-living reduction known as chained CPI and higher premiums for wealthier Medicare beneficiaries.
The two formula changes under discussion would save a combined $235 billion in the next decade. That’s an enormous and politically painful amount – but it would only offset the next two years’ worth of sequester cuts. There are six more on tap after that.
And the phrase “raising revenue” hasn’t even been tossed in the mix yet.