The spotlight returns to Capitol Hill today, where lawmakers are trying to forge a compromise spending bill and avert a government shutdown after a recess that saw the nation riveted by acrimonious budget battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats began negotiating a short-term continuing resolution last week when it became clear five days were insufficient to resolve differences over a larger spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2011 that cleared the House on Feb. 19. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled Friday that he was inclined to support a short-term CR proposed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), although the Nevada Democrat attempted to couch his position as a Republican capitulation.
“The plan Republicans are floating today sounds like a modified version of what Democrats were talking about. We’re glad they think it’s a good idea, but we should keep our focus on what we need to do to cut spending and keep our economy growing in the long-term,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said in a statement. “But the ‘my way or the highway’ approach Republicans have been taking in the past only signals a desire for a government shutdown that our country can’t afford. We hope this is a sign that they have abandoned it and will work with Democrats moving forward.”
“If Senate Democrats walk away from this offer, they are actively engineering a government shutdown,” House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) told reporters earlier Friday, in prebuttal to any negative reaction Senate Democrats might have to the GOP’s new short-term CR.
The two-week measure would cut $4 billion in federal spending over that period, and House GOP leaders immediately sought to reframe the fight as Democrats standing in the way of passing a funding bill and risking a government shutdown. Democrats for weeks have been trying to paint the GOP as supporting a shutdown more than reasonable compromise on the budget.
Roskam and other Republicans also used the release to fire back at Democrats, who have called the cuts in the short-term CR and the six-month bill draconian.
“The only thing that’s draconian is defending the status quo in Washington,” Roskam said.
“Any Democrat who can’t take these basic steps is putting politics before people,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) added.
House Republicans’ goal for this week is fairly simple — to put enough pressure on moderate Democrats and Reid to force Senate Democrats to take their two-week proposal.
Although Reid can block virtually anything sent to the chamber from the House at this point, Republicans argued they believe they are in a good position, noting that moderates such as Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are reportedly open to cuts in the short-term CR.
“The fact that they may be willing to cut some spending may be an indication that they’re willing to take a small step in the right direction,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Boehner are in constant contact, and Senate Republicans are expected to back the House GOP position as negotiated with Reid. The two Republican Conferences tend to agree on the overall amount of spending that would be cut. Given that House Republicans are in the majority, the Senate GOP has looked to them to write both the short-term and longer-term CR bills.
In a statement, McConnell announced his support for the two-week House CR and moved to put Senate Democrats on the defensive.
“There is now a clear path to finishing this short-term measure before the March 4th deadline,” McConnell said. “By supporting the House bill, our friends on the other side of the aisle will have the chance to ensure that the government remains operational while we work with them to identify additional ways to shrink Washington spending this year.”
In Wisconsin, state Senate Democrats fled the capital for an undisclosed location in Illinois last week to deny Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republicans the quorum they needed to raise a bill that would — among other things — eliminate collective bargaining rights for pension and health care benefits for unionized state employees. Legislative Democrats in Indiana made a similar move to block a bill they disagreed with, as liberal activists planned rallies over the weekend in several other states.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., have been fighting for several weeks over government spending and other fiscal issues, with the GOP pushing for significant cuts and most Democrats arguing for a freeze at current levels. Republicans are not expected to tie their arguments on the CR to the battles over unions in Wisconsin and other states. But Cantor on Friday acknowledged there are some philosophical similarities.
Cantor argued that, like House Republicans, governors are trying to “balance budgets and try and get the fiscal house in order. ... That’s what the debate in Wisconsin is about, that’s what this CR debate is about.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was elected on a campaign of lower spending and deficit reduction, said what happened in his home state could have a “positive spillover” effect on Washington.
“This really is the battle that we’re going to have to engage in on the state level as well as the federal level to rein in out-of-control spending and reduce these budget gaps,” Johnson said. “It’s a necessary fight.”
Republican strategist David Winston said there is deep public concern over fiscal matters, both in the states and at the federal level. In some cases, the issues intersect, while in others they do not, depending on the state in question.
Even though it appears to be unclear which political party would be harmed the most in the event of a government shutdown, Winston said surveys have shown at least one area of public sentiment is concrete. Voters want what they view as a fiscal crisis affecting the states and the federal government to be addressed in a meaningful way.
“What the public is looking for — and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat — is progress; make progress. Everyone is looking at this and realizing the demand from the electorate is, get it done; figure it out,” Winston said.