It has been obvious all year that so long as Democrats have the power to stop legislation via a Senate filibuster, congressional Republicans could not insist on their way or the highway. That is why their health-care and tax bills have been advanced via a budget procedure that prevents filibusters. But they cannot use that procedure for the routine appropriations measures that keep the government functioning. So although both parties have postured and issued threats about shutting down the federal government in lieu of a deal on spending for the current fiscal year, it’s unlikely (especially right before Christmas) unless stupidity breaks out.
Unfortunately, stupidity may indeed be breaking out in its traditional stomping ground, the House GOP Caucus, where Speaker Paul Ryan is toying with a too-clever-by-half strategy of passing a spending bill that only a House Republican could love, and then adjourning for the year, leaving the Senate with the unsavory choice of accepting the bill or shutting down the government three days before Christmas (when the last stopgap spending bill expires). Keeping the government open in that scenario would require at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate (or perhaps more if one of the ailing Senate Republicans cannot be there).
The two items House conservatives hope to get from this take-it-or-leave-it strategy are (1) a breach of the precedent whereby big increases in defense spending are matched by roughly equal increases in non-defense spending; and (2) a bill free of liberal riders like the Obamacare stabilization legislation that Mitch McConnell promised to Susan Collins, or a level of additional funding for hurricane and fire disasters that conservatives consider too high. It looks like the House GOP may allow money to the expiring and very popular Children’s Health Insurance Program into the deal, and other concessions — to the Senate, to Democrats, or to political realities — are possible. But the basic idea is to craft a conservative bill (which will probably pass the House by Wednesday) and hope the Senate folds, and the biggest issue is probably the core dispute over spending levels.
The House GOP wants a full year of defense spending at an elevated level, while continuing appropriations for non-defense programs at current levels until another stopgap bill is enacted by January 19. That would normally be a deal-breaker for Senate Democrats, and may well be one this time around as well. Politico reports significant pessimism about how this will go:
“Right now, they’re just headed straight off a cliff,” one person familiar with the negotiations said of the House. “[The] Senate’s not likely to jump with them.”
There are two external issues that complicate the dynamics of the spending bill. The first is the overriding desire of the congressional GOP leadership to avoid last-minute problems with its tax bill. This gives conservatives in both chambers additional leverage (Democrats are not, by design, a factor in the tax bill at all). The second, however, is that Democrats could decide to ramp up the pressure on Republicans by countering the House GOP’s demands with their own for a deal on protections for Dreamers. Democrats may not want to risk a government shutdown over immigration policy, but if it’s going to happen anyway, why not get some credit for standing up for their own priorities?
It’s entirely possible, of course, that cooler heads will prevail even in the House Republican Caucus and everyone will agree on another stopgap bill without the extra money for extra defense-only money. But that’s not the party line presently, as the Hill reports today:
If House Republicans pass this kind of bill and leave town, it will be a cold and bitter Christmas for a lot of federal employees. But hey: the GOP base, which would probably support a permanent government shutdown until it began affecting them personally, would be happy.