The Democrats hand over more hostages
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.
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