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August 29, 2014

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Government shutdown brinksmanship in 10 easy steps

Image

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

The U.S. Capitol is pictured in this Aug. 1, 2011, file photo.

Government shutdowns — or at least the threat of them — have gone from being an extremely rare occurrence to a regular part of the budgeting process in Washington, D.C.

Washington is now in the thick of that familiar last-minute panic, as lawmakers splintering largely along party lines hurl political blame at each other to explain why Congress has no government budget only days before the end of the fiscal year.

But how do we keep getting to this brink? We’ve charted the steps. (Feel free to tell us what we missed in the comments section.)

    • Step 1: Don’t pass a regular budget on time.

      It may seem obvious, but Congress does actually have a mechanism in place to avoid eleventh hour showdowns — officially, Congress is actually supposed to finish its annual budgeting months before the fiscal year starts Oct. 1. But it never quite works the way it was designed, leaving lawmakers scrambling for a continuing resolution instead of a fully vetted budget.

      This year, the House and Senate actually went a step further than they have in recent years: Each passed a budget resolution of their own. But despite the positive momentum, lawmakers couldn’t manage to reach across the political divide that separates the two chambers to find an agreement. Hence, here we are, a few days shy of Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

    • Step 2: Choose your weapon.

      The reason for not passing a budget doesn’t necessarily have to be the same each time. But in order to carry a fight toward a government shutdown, the opposing sides do need something to argue over — and it’s never something so dryly technical as, “I don’t like the specifics of your budget proposal.”

      In shutdown scares past, the two sides have come to blows over whether to raise taxes (as Democrats want) or make spending cuts (which Republicans want). This pithy philosophical divide erupted during the debt ceiling crisis in 2011 and again during the fiscal cliff crisis in 2012.

      This time, however, lawmakers have picked a new — or nouveau old, if you will — topic to epitomize their budget fight: Obamacare. Republicans want to use the fiscal 2014 budget to defund the health care law. Democrats say over their collective dead body.

    • Step 3: Hint that you will negotiate. Don’t really.

      Though it may seem as if Congress never stops fighting over fiscal issues, there are at times short periods of detente, as party leaders huddle in back chambers of the Capitol or White House.

      In past years, these early-round negotiations would involve Republican and Democratic leaders taking a trip or two down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Oval Office. But after a few bad run-ins between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, those meetings fell out of favor.

      The present fiscal fight has hovered closer to the Capitol, where party leaders hosted meetings in their own chambers this month. Yet these didn’t prove any more fruitful than the White House-led process in the end, as the ongoing shutdown showdown makes plain.

    • Step 4: Retrench.

      After the opening negotiating gambit, the clear next step is to retrench to one’s principles. One party can always blame the other side’s intransigence as forcing their hand. Or there’s always the charge that the other party was negotiating in bad faith. The upshot of the public line is simply: "We tried to negotiate, negotiations aren’t feasible, so we will proceed to fight for the right, as interpreted by our party."

    • Step 5: Call each other names.

      Both parties are adept at name-throwing after initial negotiations break down. And it’s ugly on both sides. But let’s face it: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is king of this stage of the game. He describes Republicans as anarchists, fanatics, extremists, the Thelma and Louise drivers of the American economy — and that’s just what he’s plucked out of his thesaurus in the past 48 hours. (He also usually offers Boehner a modicum of pity for having to deal with these elements within his own ranks as part of the process.)

      This stage is as much for the cameras and the coming election as it is the crisis at hand. Because there is still time to resolve that — or not. We’re only halfway through the shutdown progression.

    • Step 6: Showin’ how funky strong is your fight.

      Amid the name calling, each house traditionally will hold a budget vote, just to prove they can pass a budget the way they want to.

      But for this step to work, the party leader actually has to be able to whip the votes. This has proven problematic for Boehner in the past; he cannot always hold the ultra-conservative, Tea Party-affiliated members of his caucus to the party line. Reid also faces a procedural hurdle to get this done in the Senate — he can get his party to vote for a Democratically principled budget bill, but he can’t always get around a filibuster threat. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t always let his members threaten a filibuster, but when they do, it’s essentially an unwinnable case.

    • Step 7: Negotiate. For Real This Time.

      Democrats may have the better track record for getting their way in these fiscal fights, but really, neither party ever emerges from a shutdown fight without giving up something. In the past, Republicans have had to abandon their pledge to never let tax revenues increase. Democrats have also had to relinquish the budget for certain programs that Republicans have demanded be slashed back.

      How that give-and-take will work this time is the biggest conundrum. Democrats refuse to defund Obamacare, even partially, and point to the fact the Supreme Court already upheld the constitutionality of the law and its exchanges, which open for enrollment Oct. 1. Given that track record, Republicans would have to regroup around a smaller, Obamacare-altering demand to also score a win.

    • Step 8: Come up with an agreement everyone can live with for a few weeks.

      There is no real prescription for how long a continuing resolution — or a CR, in the lingo — can be. There have been CRs that lasted a few days. There have been CRs that lasted an entire fiscal year. A CR can be as long as the leaders decide it can be.

      The CR the House passed last week would keep the government funded until mid-December, while a proposal Democrats are considering putting on the table would fund the government until mid-November. It will eventually be up to Reid and Boehner to agree upon a timeline — once they figure out how to get Congress to agree upon a budget.

      Also, in case there is any doubt about whether Congress will rely on a continuing resolution this time, refer back to Step 1.

    • Step 9: Choose your own adventure.

      Option 9-A: Congress doesn’t pass the temporary compromise agreement, and misses the deadline. The government shuts down.

      This hasn’t actually happened in a while. If it does, there’s really no magic solution. Except to return to Step 4, or if you’re feeling generous, Step 7, and try again.

      Option 9-B: Congress passes a temporary agreement and both sides try to sell it to the public.

      If this happens, it is really up to the party leaders and members to decide how they will handle the aftermath — and how they handle it depends on both what the final agreement looks like, and how long it lasts.

      But basically, there are only three ways to announce your support for an agreement to avoid a government shutdown at the last minute, in which you had to make some concessions. (All involve decrying the last minute, naturally.) 1) You can say you are deciding to take the high road and pledge to fight another day. 2) You can argue that you actually upheld your principles, and hence won. 3) You can skip all that, praise compromise, and say America won. Go America.

    • Step 10: Do it again.

      Because remember Step 8? Right. They only passed a continuing resolution that’ll last a few weeks. Same time, same place, sometime soon.

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