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Showdown Is a No-Win Situation in Third Budget Battle of the Year

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
From left: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders gathered before a Friday news conference to discuss the possibility of a government shutdown.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

Democrats and Republicans agreed almost two months ago on fiscal 2012 spending levels as part of their deal to raise the debt ceiling. But despite their best efforts to avoid a third spending fight this year, Congress is engaged in another government shutdown battle stemming from a disagreement over disaster funding, a move that is likely to keep both parties unpopular with voters.

It also bodes poorly for Nov. 18, when the continuing resolution currently under debate is expected to expire and Congress will again have to act to keep the government open.

Lawmakers have through Friday, the end of the fiscal year, to pass the stopgap funding bill, or federal programs will run out of money.

“I wish every high school student in America could observe their government in action, their taxpayer dollars at work,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said sarcastically of the standoff Friday.

Similarly, Sen. Mark Warner said Sunday that the current situation is “embarrassing.”

“Can we once again inflict on the country and the American people the spectacle of a near government shutdown? I sure as heck hope not,” the Virginia Democrat said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, just 12 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job. That figure matches Congress’ all-time low approval rating, which was hit in October 2008 as the nation was in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“All this thrashing back ’n’ forth, it may contribute to putting our approval rating from 12 [percent] down into single digits; it could be to 8 or 9,” McCain said. “Then you are at paid staffers and blood relatives.”

Still, he added: “It is going to work out one way or another. I do not predict how, but I know it will because we are not going to deprive those people of the aid that they deserve from this government.”

The current showdown centers on Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funding. The GOP-led House passed a continuing resolution Thursday, but Democrats, who control the Senate, oppose it because they say the $3.6 billion for disaster aid is inadequate and they oppose cuts in the measure designed to offset about $1.1 billion of the emergency spending.

In an effort to force the Senate to accept its bill, the House adjourned Friday for a weeklong recess. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called on House Republican leaders to meet with Senate Democrats and negotiate a compromise over the weekend, but no talks were publicly announced. Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), in an email Sunday said only, “We remain in touch with the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Leadership.”

Making good on Reid’s threat to work through the recess to avoid a government shutdown, the Senate will vote Monday evening on its own CR, which is identical to the House version except that the bill does not offset the disaster spending.

Lawmakers came back from their August recess seeming more ready to cooperate after being chastised by constituents over the high-stakes battles over spending that took place earlier this year, including the bruising August fight over raising the debt ceiling.

The latest fracas has shown that the two parties are eager to score political points and are looking ahead to next year’s elections. But that may not be a winning political strategy for either side.

Ron Bonjean, a partner at public affairs firm Singer Bonjean Strategies, said, “Right now, no, there’s not a political value of this down-to-the-last-minute pushing the CR across the line and having a huge debate about it.”

He added, “People are exhausted of Washington gridlock, and they’re tired of hearing about potential government shutdown.”

But Bonjean, an aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said that House Republicans are simply making good on their 2010 pledge to shrink the size of government and cut spending. Although the political fervor hasn’t reached a high mark in the current CR debate, Bonjean said that Congressional Republicans are building a case to present to voters next year.

“They can point to a solid track record of showing momentum with their political goals,” he said. “A year ago, no one thought we’d have a super committee dealing with trillions of dollars in spending cuts. They keep pushing that theme, saying we’ve been successful with one side of Capitol Hill on pushing back against the Democratic agenda.”

If the House and Senate are able to resolve this week’s impasse, the next one could occur just before Nov. 18. That is when government funding is expected to run out again and when Congress may begin to consider a deficit reduction package being developed by the super committee.

A Senate Democratic aide said the GOP should work with Democrats rather than looking to placate its base.

“Republicans saw some polls in August showing that the public was disgusted with their approach of refusing to work with Democrats on even the most basic of issues,” the aide said. “This drove them to change their rhetoric for a few weeks, but it didn’t change the fact that they are still completely beholden to the tea party, and they have not taken any action to change that basic fact of life.”

Indeed, Boehner initially suffered a defeat on the House floor when 48 tea-party-inspired Republicans joined all but six Democrats in opposing the CR last week. GOP opposition came from a belief that the spending levels the House and Senate agreed to in August were too high. Only after adding another small offset that targeted a controversial renewable energy loan program did some of those Republicans agree to support the CR. Boehner convinced them by arguing he would have to begin negotiating with Democrats if the Republicans didn’t go along with the tweak.

House Democratic leaders have said they would encourage their Members to vote for the Senate’s proposed compromise measure.

But in the Senate, the bill will need seven Republicans to vote with all 53 Democrats to win the 60 votes needed to clear any procedural hurdles. That will be a tall order with House and Senate Republican leaders working together to push for passage of the House CR.

“I had a couple of Republicans come to me today from states that are in disaster areas and said if it’s the only bill in town and FEMA is going to run out of money, I have to vote for it,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who heads Senate Democrats’ communications and policy operation, said Friday.

A week and a half ago, 10 Republicans voted for a Senate bill that would provide nearly double the disaster funding that the House has proposed, without offsets. But several of those GOP Senators have since been wavering in their support.

If the latest Senate measure fails to win 60 votes, Senate Democrats hope to work out something with House Republicans before the end of the week.

“We believe the Republicans will not let the government shut down,” Schumer said. “We believe they will come and negotiate.”

Even if Senate Democrats manage to pass their bill, chances of a compromise getting to the president are complicated by the fact that House GOP leaders have already sent their Members home and have indicated that they don’t expect to call them back to vote again on a CR.

“We have the money in the bill. It’s there in a responsible manner,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Friday. “Let’s get the money to the people that need it. ... The bill is there in front of [Reid]. The Senate should take the bill up and get the people the disaster relief they need.”

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