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Posted at 1:23 PM ET, 12/20/2010

The Democrats hand over more hostages

By Ezra Klein


Over the past two years, Senate Democrats have prioritized historic legislation over routine legislation. A lot of time has been spent on health-care reform, DADT repeal, financial regulation, jobs bills, food safety and other legislative achievements that simply would not pass under a Republican Congress. But because the Senate has less time than it does work -- and because the minority has been wasting time to keep work from getting done -- that's meant a certain amount of neglect over things like appropriations bills and nominations. Lots of GOP obstruction and very little time in which to break that obstruction has meant a lot of routine, keep-government-going things simply didn't get done.

The omnibus spending bill that fell apart in the Senate last week yoked 12 of those things -- namely, the 12 appropriations bills that keep the government going -- together. Without them, the government shuts down. But the Republicans wouldn't hand over the votes. So rather than make a decision on what to do, the Senate is just going to extend its previous decision on what to do: Federal agencies will be funded at their current levels through the beginning of March.

This is called a "Continuing Resolution," and in the words of budget expert Stan Collender, "it's no way to run a railroad." It basically means that if there's something new or different that an agency wants or needs to do, that agency can't do it. And then, continues Collender, when the agencies perform poorly, "we end up blaming them for not doing all the things we expected them to do."

It also sets up a new fight in February over the spending bill that will take the government through to 2012. House Republicans are already talking about cutting back to 2008 levels -- which would require about $90 billion in cuts, and wipe out much of the stimulus in the recent tax deal. It's a safe bet to presume that those cuts will also include substantial efforts to defund and otherwise impede the implementation of the health-care law.

And if everything stays on schedule, the spending fight will hit at about the same time that we reach the debt limit. That means Republicans will have both a government shutdown and a fiscal crisis to tie to the proverbial train tracks. Will Obama and the Democrat be willing to risk it?

Some say they will. Spending cuts are popular in theory but deadly in fact. If Republicans want to start slashing necessary programs, they'll find that out pretty quickly. More pessimistic voices, however, wonder whether a president who wouldn't permit a a modest tax hike will be any more daring when hundreds of thousands of federal workers and the credit of the United States of America are on the line.

I'm closer to the pessimists, myself. There were always a lot of outcomes for the spring debt-limit fight, and all of them looked like different sorts of bad. Now we'll also see the bulk of the government's 2011 budget negotiated with a Republican House and a more-Republican Senate, both of which seem to be smarting a bit from the recent tax deal and anxious to show that they're now in control. To get a sense of the GOP's mood, consider the warning shot a Republican aide sent Mike Allen after seeing all the admiring press Obama was getting:

A GOP leadership aide e-mails: “In 18 days, there will be a Republican Speaker of the House and an ascendant Republican leader in the Senate, and you’ll see a different world.”

Photo credit: Alex Brandon/AP.

By Ezra Klein  | December 20, 2010; 1:23 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: How much is $250,000?
Next: Earmarks and executive power


Things will work out fine, Ezra. Governing is more difficult than campaigning, and the GOP is going to find that out in 2011. I also think 2011 onwards will reveal real fractures within the GOP -- the sensible ones who care about the country and the rhetorical bomb-throwers.

Posted by: jasonr3 | December 20, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

The only thing I'm certain of is more debt!

Posted by: will12 | December 20, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Whether we have a government shutdown over the appropriations bills or not....we'll see.

What I'd bet my life savings on is that the Congress will not now or ever refuse to raise the debt ceiling. You guys are being alarmist with this notion that this is some "showdown" between Obama and the Republicans. This will come down to the entire financial universe versus Congress. I'll take that bet all day long.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 20, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Two points:

"But because the Senate has less time than it does work -- and because the minority has been wasting time to keep work from getting done -- that's meant a certain amount of neglect over things like appropriations bills and nominations. Lots of GOP obstruction and very little time in which to break that obstruction has meant a lot of routine, keep-government-going things simply didn't get done."

1. Absent from this list of reasons is any mention of the desire of the Democrats, as the majority party in both houses, to avoid taking "tough" votes before the mid-term elections. I believe some of the (lack of) budget votes fell into this category.

"The absence of those specifics means House Democrats aren't voting for a budget with a trillion-plus-dollar deficit, which is a vote they don't want to take, and it spares the House leadership the trouble of navigating the normal budget-related squabbles."

2. I seem to recall from the 1990's that government by continuing resolution was one of the key factors in bringing the deficit under control. I.e. if you keep the agency budgets the same and we actually have economic and tax receipt growth, we can reduce the deficit. I would also argue that if the overall agency budgets are kept the same (i.e. at the department level for State, HHS, Defense, etc) but they have flexibility to move funds around within the Department level budgets that's actually a good thing in that it will finally force some budget prioritization and a hard look at eliminating unnecessary and outdated programs.

Posted by: jnc4p | December 20, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Hence the GOP's self-fulfilling prophecy/mantra "the government can’t do anything right… (because the GOP won’t allow it to)” - my addendum.


Posted by: chrisgaun | December 20, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

didnt you realize that obama's "hostage"speech told the gop how to win?

Posted by: newagent99 | December 20, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

The Republicans are truly the party of anti-intellectualism. A poll came out today that showed 52% of all Republicans believe in strict creationism, that mankind has only been here 10,000 years and that evolution is not valid. Add this to the hare-brained Republican mantra that global warming is not true and you have a scary number of ignorant people populating the Republican party. Sarah Palin is emblematic of the type of morons we are now seeing surface in the Republican party. It's a circular firing squad and the Republicans are all crack shots! Mark Montgomery NYC, NY

Posted by: boboberg | December 20, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Gee, how nice that the constant cheerleader for Obama and clueless wonder about real life noticed there's a problem with "The Deal."
Keep studying, Ezra. You may yet run across yet another insight about the real world.

Posted by: kmblue | December 20, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

People should never forget that real health depends how well you take care of yourself and not what health insurance you carry but I agree health insurance is important for every one. Search "Wise Health Insurance" online for dollar a day insurance plans.

Posted by: williamstaerk | December 21, 2010 3:06 AM | Report abuse

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