Politics & Policy

Another Stopgap

Congress gives itself another three-week breather, but it may be the last.

The House passed another stopgap continuing resolution on Tuesday, once again averting a shutdown and giving Congress and the White House three more weeks to negotiate a long-term solution for the seven months remaining in the fiscal year. The bill keeps the government running through April 8 and cuts federal spending by $6 billion. It was the second short-term spending bill passed by the 112th Congress, and could very well be the last.

Pressure is rapidly increasing now on both sides to reach a compromise, lest they risk a government shutdown. Neither Republicans nor Democrats say they want that to happen — but neither side wants to pass another short-term spending bill, either, and they are drifting farther and farther apart on the issue of what a final, full-size budget should look like.

Fifty-four Republicans bucked their party leadership by voting no. Prominent conservatives including Reps. Mike Pence (R., Ind.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), and Jim Jordan (R., Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee) were joined by dozens of freshman members in opposition. Party leaders argue that as long as Congress is cutting spending, Republicans are winning, but these dissenters believe Senate Democrats are gaining the upper hand by purposefully stalling the negotiations — Tuesday’s no votes were a direct challenge to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), as well as President Obama, to engage with Republicans seriously.

“That’s how I see my vote,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.) told National Review Online. “We can’t let the other side stall this. It’s time to force Obama and Reid to the table, and you don’t do that by giving them more time; you say there’s a deadline.”

“I think this is the moment to pick a fight with liberals in the Senate,” Pence told reporters. “We’re not going to change the direction of spending in Washington, D.C., without a fight . . . House Republicans should say, ‘This far and no farther.’”

It is a message that was generally embraced by Republican leaders as well. “It’s time for the games to stop,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) said. “We hope and intend for this to be the last stopgap measure.” But because House Republicans have already passed a long-term spending resolution, H.R. 1, it is incumbent upon Senate Democrats and the president to make a counteroffer. As Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) put it: “We can’t negotiate with ourselves.”

GOP leaders say that all members of the caucus are frustrated with the inability of Congress to get results. “[Jim Jordan’s] problem with the bill is, he wants to finish it,” McCarthy said. “That’s Jim’s frustration, that’s Eric’s frustration, it’s Kevin’s frustration.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats have an altogether different take. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said Tuesday that the ball is in the Republicans’ court because Democrats have already “made two offers” — President Obama’s fiscal-year 2011 budget and the plan put forth by Senate Democrats, which, like H.R. 1, failed to pass the Senate earlier this month.

Reid accused “Tea Party extremists” of preventing “reasonable Republicans” from negotiating an acceptable compromise, while Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) slammed “Scott Walker Republicans” for trying to “impose their entire social agenda,” referring to the numerous policy riders in H.R. 1, most notably an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. Prominent pro-life groups had urged Republicans to vote no precisely because the short-term bill did not include this measure.

Republicans dismissed the idea that the 54 votes against the bill were evidence that the party was in disarray. “I think it actually helps leadership,” Huelskamp said. “They can go to the president and say: ‘You’re worried about $6 billion, Mr. Obama? You ought to wait and see what these guys want to do. They voted for $120 billion,’” referring to a failed amendment to H.R. 1 that would have included an additional $20 billion in spending cuts.

However, reports of dissatisfaction within the party are not unfounded. A Republican source describes “considerable effort” from leadership to discourage members from voting no, with some voting yes only reluctantly. Meanwhile, one freshman — Rep. Michael Grimm (R., N.Y.) — even called out “extreme” members of his own party for “risking a government shutdown” by voting against the bill. At a morning conference meeting before the vote, members expressed disagreement with party leadership, though the conversation was “civil,” according to a source who was there.

Either way, Republicans maintain they are committed to finishing out the 2011 budget as quickly as possible in order to shift the focus onto the even more significant matter of the 2012 budget. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) plans to put forward a serious blueprint to massively reduce the national deficit, including meaningful (i.e., politically volatile) reforms to entitlement programs — the primary drivers of the deficit. Unnecessary distractions are the last thing Ryan and the GOP need as they prepare to sell their plan to the voting public.

The bill will go to the Senate for vote later this week. It is likely to pass, despite the announcements of some GOP senators — Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Rand Paul (R., Ky.), Mike Lee (R., Utah), and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) — that they will vote no. However, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) wouldn’t say whether he’d support additional short-term measures.

President Obama, who has yet to engage publicly in negotiations between the two sides, urged the Senate to pass the bill.White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the additional three weeks give Congress “some breathing room to find consensus.” But with Congress set to go on recess next week, the clock is already ticking.

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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