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09.23.11

Congress's Budget Déjà Vu

Like a bad recurring dream, Congress has resurrected the threat of a government shutdown by failing to agree on a temporary spending bill to fund the government through November.

Here we go again.

With yet another government shutdown looming, the Senate voted 59-36 to reject a Republican plan to temporarily fund the government through November and help provide disaster relief to victims of recent hurricanes, fire, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes.

The House had approved the so-called continuing resolution in the wee hours of the morning Friday. But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid succeeded in defeating it in the Senate. Without agreement between the two chambers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief fund will run out of money by Monday and the government will shut down by end of next week.

The high-stakes showdown is becoming all too-familiar: a routine spending extension morphs into an all-out war between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House. Add in the complication that House Speaker John Boehner is struggling in vain to control a renegade group of Tea Party conservatives inside his own party, and one could understand the frustration Americans have with Congress these days.

The bill that passed the House 219 to 203 Thursday night would fund the government through Nov. 19. at the same amount approved in the August battle to increase the debt ceiling, along with $3.65 billion in funding for disaster relief.  Over the objections of Democrats, Republicans partially offset the new FEMA funding by cutting $1.5 billion from a program for cleaner-running cars and $100 million from the same loan guarantee program that funded Solyndra, the bankrupt energy company that is now under investigation by the FBI.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid balked at the offsets Thursday night, calling them “Tea Party driven efforts to ruin our country,” and promised to defeat the entire package. He succeeded.

“I was optimistic that my House Republican colleagues would learn from their failure yesterday and move toward the middle,” he said. “Instead, they moved even further toward the Tea Party.”

Boehner defended the measure as a bipartisan bill (six House Democrats voted for it) and argued that, with full funding for FEMA in the House-passed measure, Democrats had nothing to complain about.

The drama began late Wednesday, when Boehner called for a vote on the bill to keep the government funded past the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.   The bill also included emergency funding for FEMA, which has seen its disaster funding run dry this year after months of severe fires, floods, and hurricanes around the country. Although it was was expected to pass easily, a group of nearly 50 conservatives balked at the dollar amount of the spending extension, which was the same as the limit that the House approved in the debt-ceiling fight in August but higher than the GOP budget that the House passed earlier this year, and voted with the House Democrats to defeat it.

Boehner scrambled to rejigger the numbers to win over his angry conservatives, and, after adding the Solyndra cuts, got nearly half of the GOP no votes back to yes. When he was asked if the wasn’t putting himself between a rock and a hard place by passing a bill that conservatives can live with only to further alienate Senate Democrats, Boehner joked Thursday, “Welcome to my world.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was in no mood to laugh as the second bill came to a vote, calling it “the same old, same old, warmed-over stew” and warning that it would only lead to another impasse with the Senate and a shutdown of government.

“I remind the Republicans that it's a bicameral legislature, and if we're going to not shut down government, you have to have something that is going to be able to be passed in the Senate,” she said.

On Friday morning, Boehner said that he had been speaking with Reid about a possible compromise, but admitted, “There wasn’t much progress made.” Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy’s office sent out a notice Friday afternoon suggesting the House had no plans to return for more votes until Oct. 3.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor insisted that it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who were to blame as the government shutdown neared.

“There’s no brinksmanship,” Cantor said in the Capitol. “Harry Reid is holding a bill with full funding up for no reason but for politics. This is why people just don’t have respect for this institution or this town anymore.”

At the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, took his boss out of the equation and called passing the C.R. “the basic responsibility that Congress has," adding, “This should not be that hard."

But it looks like the process is only getting harder. The House and Senate are both scheduled to be in recess next week as the clock runs out on funding for the federal government. Although Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say they are ready to keep senators in town until the standoff is over, and Reid called for a vote Monday on a new Senate bill.

But Boehner and Cantor said Friday morning that the House's work, at least for now, is done. "The House-passed C.R. is the only path forward," Boehner said.

Reid suggested Friday morning that the House and Senate leaders meet over the weekend to discuss a possible compromise and have the House and Senate go back to work Monday after having a chance to simmer down from the long week of fighting.

"Everyone once in a while, everyone needs a cooling off period," Reid said.