Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner have locked themselves into a trillion-dollar game of chicken as lawmakers gear up for the final days of a budget showdown. The stakes aren’t as much whether the government will shut down — as who is going to take the blame if it happens.
At issue is $61 billion: the amount the Republican-led House approved stripping out of the federal budget for the rest of fiscal 2011.
That proposal, which pulls funding from Pell Grants and renewable energy, but preserves it for oil, natural gas and Yucca Mountain, has been a nonstarter with Reid. But he doesn’t have much wiggle room.
Boehner, who is under intense pressure from the Tea Party wing of his party, is telling Reid to toe the line or take the blame for letting the lights go out à la 1995, when Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton both dug in so fiercely on budget cuts that the federal government went offline for about three weeks.
It’s a specter party leaders on both sides warn against.
“We need to cut government spending, that’s no longer debatable. The debate isn’t about whether we cut, it’s about how we cut,” said Reid, who has proposed a 30-day measure to buy time to negotiate — a suggestion Republicans rejected. “But they’re refusing to come to the table at all ... they’re saying ‘it’s our way or the highway.’ We cannot afford a government shutdown.”
“Read my lips,” Boehner said. “We are going to cut spending,” adding that Democrats were at fault for “threatening to shut down the government rather than to cut spending and to follow the will of the American people.”
But fear of a shutdown might not be what it was 15 years ago.
“The nation has finally come to grips with the fact that government spending is out of control,” Republican activist Chuck Muth of Nevada said. “If Republicans get their messaging right, I’m not sure a government shutdown will be a negative.”
Conservative figures such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have gone so far as to say they would welcome a government shutdown as the first step in contending with the country’s debt. The country is expected to crash into the debt ceiling sometime in April, which would have the same effect of shutting down nonessential services, furloughing federal employees and cutting off government checks for any program that isn’t in surplus.
Tea Party figures in Congress say they won’t vote for anything that doesn’t reflect their cuts.
Boehner appears to be taking their threat seriously: On Wednesday, he proposed a two-week budget extension to allow time for compromise — provided lawmakers cut $4 billion off the budget for those two weeks.
Reid spokesman Jon Summers blasted it as a “prorated version of the same reckless proposal.”
As lawmakers shoot down each other’s proposals, the moment of reckoning is fast approaching: After March 4 federal funding will run out, leaving lawmakers five working days to come to some sort of agreement that can eke out a majority in both houses of Congress.
Even on a rushed schedule, it will take at least a few days for the Senate to make changes to what the House passed, not to mention the negotiations that have to happen to resolve the two versions.
The situation is colored by the need for both party leaders to hold onto hard-won political ground — not just for this Congress, but also their political fates in 2012.
Boehner wants to hold onto the fealty of the Tea Party without losing the rest of his party.
In the past few weeks the more conservative GOP House members have shown they are willing to hang Boehner and his leadership team out to dry if they don’t like the party’s line. It won’t be so easy for Boehner to cater to them when not all House GOP members want to risk a shutdown to hold their political ground.
“Actually, I don’t think it’s that bad an idea,” Rep. Dean Heller told a Las Vegas television station regarding Reid’s proposal for a 30-day extension to buy time to negotiate. Heller has broken rank with Boehner over votes on the Patriot Act and Yucca Mountain funding.
“If both sides can’t come to an agreement, I think we ought to extend this thing for a couple of weeks so we can continue negotiations,” he said. “I just don’t want to see this government shut down.”
For Reid, winning the budget battle means regaining the policy driver’s seat, which he seemed to have all but lost in December, when Obama was making tax deals directly with the Republicans in the name of urgency.
Despite the clock ticking on a government shutdown — agencies have begun to prepare for it — Obama seems to be sitting this battle out. He’s focusing instead on the fiscal 2012 budget he released two weeks ago.
“Democrats definitely have the upper hand. Republicans are doing a lousy job because their message is divided,” Muth said. Boehner is “on probation. He’s not known as a movement conservative, so he’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt ... Reid’s got a lot less to lose.”
But Reid’s running a tough message, even for a seasoned statesman. Democrats haven’t actually offered any cuts below current government funding levels. His caucus isn’t speaking with one voice either. Some in his party say they would vote for some of the Republicans’ cuts.
While he wrangles his caucus Reid also needs to keep control of the messaging war on the competing dollar figures involved.
“The country’s been looking at 12-figure price tags on a lot of these pieces of legislation,” Nevada Republican strategist Robert Uithoven said. “Sixty-one billion to a lot of people isn’t that much money, especially in the context of what was passed in the previous Congress. I’d rather be in Speaker Boehner’s shoes at this time, than Sen. Reid’s.”