Democratic Concession Could Avert a Shutdown

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.
National Journal
Billy House and Michael Catalini
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Billy House Michael Catalini
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats are no longer rul­ing out a short-term spend­ing bill that in­cludes the se­quester cuts in its topline num­bers, a po­ten­tial con­ces­sion that could help avert a gov­ern­ment shut­down at the end of the month.

But the softer strategy comes with a tough­er mes­sage: Re­pub­lic­ans — not Demo­crats — should be the ones held re­spons­ible for shut­ting down gov­ern­ment, if that hap­pens.

“Just be­cause you’re an an­ti­gov­ern­ment idea­logue who has landed in Con­gress doesn’t mean that you should be shut­ting down gov­ern­ment,” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., said Thursday.

Pelosi and oth­er Demo­crats also cri­ti­cized Re­pub­lic­ans who want to use their lever­age in talks over gov­ern­ment spend­ing, the debt ceil­ing, and se­quest­ra­tion as an­oth­er av­en­ue to undo the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Pelosi’s com­ments came after she and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., and House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, met Thursday for about 45 minutes be­hind closed doors to dis­cuss fisc­al mat­ters.

The meet­ing fo­cused on two ma­jor is­sues: keep­ing gov­ern­ment run­ning bey­ond Sept. 30, when the cur­rent fund­ing mech­an­ism ex­pires, and in­creas­ing the debt lim­it. The most ur­gent is the need for a bill to keep gov­ern­ment run­ning at the Oct. 1 start of the new fisc­al year, be­cause the House and Sen­ate have not agreed on any of the 12 an­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations bills for 2014.

A stop-gap spend­ing meas­ure to ex­tend cur­rent spend­ing levels for sev­er­al weeks is the most likely solu­tion. That would al­low more time for ne­go­ti­ations between con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats and the White House over a longer-term spend­ing pack­age that could also ad­dress the debt ceil­ing — which will have to be in­creased in mid-Oc­to­ber for the U.S. to con­tin­ue pay­ing its bills.

But with just three weeks left, reach­ing an agree­ment on such a carry-over bill is by no means cer­tain. Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic lead­ers in the House already have ad­vised their mem­bers they might have to be in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the fi­nal week of Septem­ber, which was sched­uled to be a re­cess week, in case an el­ev­enth-hour solu­tion is needed.

Hurdles to a deal were already on dis­play this week. Boehner and oth­er GOP lead­ers were forced on Wed­nes­day to in­def­in­itely post­pone their plan to keep gov­ern­ment fun­ded through Dec. 15 be­cause they could not find enough votes.

That plan in­cluded a twist first floated by Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., to link the bill to a sep­ar­ate res­ol­u­tion that would force the Sen­ate to hold a vote to de­fund Obama­care. That’s something many con­ser­vat­ives are de­mand­ing in re­turn for their votes.

That pro­pos­al also would con­tin­ue gov­ern­ment spend­ing at an an­nu­al­ized rate of $986.3 bil­lion, a level that main­tains the se­quest­ra­tion cuts. Sen­ate Demo­crats have been writ­ing up their spend­ing bills at a topline level of $1.059 tril­lion, on the as­sump­tion the se­quester will be re­pealed.

Still, many con­ser­vat­ives op­posed the House plan, com­plain­ing the Sen­ate could vote down the de­fund­ing lan­guage for Obama­care. And on Thursday, some con­ser­vat­ives began float­ing al­tern­at­ive lan­guage that would tie the spend­ing bill to a one-year delay in fund­ing for Obama­care.

After his meet­ing with the oth­er lead­ers, Boehner said that there are “a mil­lion” op­tions for a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion still be­ing dis­cussed, and that work was still be­ing done even on the op­tion that stalled this week.

“We’re work­ing with our col­leagues to work our way through these is­sues. I think there is a way to get there. I’m go­ing to be con­tinu­ing to work with my fel­low lead­ers and our mem­bers to ad­dress those con­cerns,” Boehner said.

But Pelosi made it clear that pro­pos­als that in­clude de­fund­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act are non­starters.

“They know what they’re pro­pos­ing is not go­ing to pass the Sen­ate or be signed by the pres­id­ent, so why don’t we just save time, be con­struct­ive?” she said.

At the White House, press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney said, “Con­gress needs to pass a budget and not at­tach polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated riders to their fund­ing bills, you know, part of a per­sist­ent ef­fort to re­fight old battles.”

But Pelosi was also asked wheth­er Demo­crats might ac­cept the GOP meas­ure with its short-term con­tinu­ation of the se­quester cuts, if the Obama­care lan­guage was dropped. And she did not dis­miss the idea.

“It’d have to be for a very short time,” she said. “We’ll see what they [Re­pub­lic­ans] do.”

Over in the Sen­ate, Re­id re­spon­ded sim­il­arly, say­ing, “Let’s find out what they can do. It’s hard to ne­go­ti­ate something that doesn’t ex­ist.”

But Sen­ate Demo­crats, like Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., stood by the cham­ber’s budget, which would undo the auto­mat­ic, across-the-board cuts in the long term. “We are uni­fied in our caucus that we need to re­place se­quest­ra­tion re­spons­ibly,” she said.

Sen­ate Demo­crats also offered Re­pub­lic­ans little hope that a deal could be struck over delay­ing the im­ple­ment­a­tion of Obama­care. Asked if his goal was to re­turn a “clean CR,” mean­ing without lan­guage de­fund­ing or delay­ing the health care law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion, Re­id said flatly, “Yes.”

Like Pelosi, some Sen­ate Demo­crats are now ag­gress­ively cast­ing their op­pon­ents as ob­struc­tion­ists, ar­guing that they now have the up­per hand in this fall’s debt fights and are con­fid­ent that a gov­ern­ment shut­down or de­fault would polit­ic­ally be­ne­fit them in the 2014 elec­tions. By con­trast, Re­pub­lic­ans hope to cap­it­al­ize on polling that shows the Af­ford­able Care Act is still un­pop­u­lar with the pub­lic.

“Push comes to shove on debt ceil­ing, I’m vir­tu­ally cer­tain they’ll blink,” said Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York, the No. 3 Demo­crat in the Sen­ate. “They know they shouldn’t be play­ing hav­oc with the mar­kets. They’re on a little stronger ground with shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment. But even on that one, they’re on weak ground be­cause the pub­lic sort of is fi­nally smelling that these guys are for ob­struct­ing.”

“They want to keep de­bat­ing Obama­care? Fine,” Schu­mer said. “But there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s called the elec­tion of 2014.”

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