Photo Finish Postponed

Fanciful rumors of a deal between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), trading support for military action in Syria for budget concessions, were blown well and truly out of the water this week.  Right now, there is no serious prospect of a budget agreement of any kind, as a House bill that would at least have postponed an appropriations standoff has been withdrawn from the calendar.

First, a brief word on the Syrian connection, which has gone away for the moment but could return as a rumor re-born:  There was never any serious hope that budget differences could have been resolved in a united front over Syria.  The differences over the budget – much less over Syria – were and remain far too great.  There was a narrow chance that Members of Congress would want to avoid exposure to charges of failing to fund protection for the troops in the field should the planned unmanned air attacks somehow turn into deeper involvement.  There was perhaps an even narrower chance that Members would see in the foreign-policy tension a risk to the global and national economic recovery, and would therefore seek to minimize any additional tension through economic policy itself.  But any relief through those channels most likely would have been only temporary, and the drop in the barometric pressure on the Syrian front probably renders those prospects moot for the relevant duration.

So we are left with the status ante Syria, which is to say by all indications an insoluble conundrum.  That fact was only reemphasized when the House leadership pulled the bill to enact appropriations at the new and reduced post-sequester level until December 15 of this year.  It would have been only a temporary “continuing resolution” (or CR), but still a breather beyond the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

You probably have seen the following calculations on the blackboard, but it might be worth systematizing them just a bit more as we prepare to enter the next phase of chaos.

Funding the federal agencies requires an Act of Congress.  An Act of Congress (between now and the next election, at least) requires agreement among the Republican House and the Democratic Senate and President (ignoring a possible veto override, just to stay within ten long strides of reality).  Many Members in the House majority have a long list of putatively non-negotiable demands that must be met before those House Members will agree with the President and the Senate.  Those demands include most prominently (by current report) some curtailment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, AKA “Obamacare”).

The Speaker at least initially will follow long-standing practice and insist on an appropriations continuing resolution that has strong support within his own caucus.  And in fact, it appears unlikely that the Speaker will get even a token number of Democratic votes for a CR at the post-sequester spending levels, if he gets any Democratic votes at all.  So he will need 218 of his now-232-Member caucus to vote for a CR if it is to proceed out of the House.

The Speaker’s caucus, however, is far from unified at a level of detail sufficient to specify a public law.  (Detailing this situation is not to criticize the caucus for the policy positions that the Members espouse, but rather to illustrate how hard it will be to thread the needle on the necessary vote count.)  The House Republicans do apparently agree in their opposition to the ACA.  However, they seem not to agree on their demand with respect to it.  Some Republican Members are quoted in the press as being willing to accept a postponement of the ACA’s effective date – which they surely assume would be the first of many – while others insist on “de-funding Obamacare” now.  Some have expressed an interest in offering to remove the latest round of the spending sequester if Democrats in turn give ground on the ACA, but at least one influential Republican, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), described that trade as “a complete capitulation and surrender…It’s probably bigger than Obamacare.”

Republicans also differ in another respect on the spending sequester as a potential bargaining chip.  Some hope to remove the sequester cuts on defense; in fact, that is the position of the House budget resolution passed earlier this year.  But others are willing to endure the defense sequester to cut total government spending; many agreed to the defense sequester as a contingency in the first place, and many were willing to accept the defense sequester as part of their bargaining with President Obama at the turn of this year.

And finally, there are differences in perspective among Republicans as to which battlefield to choose for the ACA fight.  Some have drawn the line at the end of this fiscal year and its appropriations expiration, saying that they will not vote, under any circumstances, for an appropriations bill or even a temporary CR that leaves the ACA in operation in any way.  Others who profess to have the same antipathy for the ACA say that they believe that the collision with the debt limit, which is estimated to occur slightly later (between October 18 and November 5, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center), would be the better place to stand and fight.

In short, when you need about 94 percent agreement within a group that has so many intense differences of belief, you have some serious consensus building to do.

But beyond these substantive and tactical differences, it is clear that the sentiments within the House Republican caucus are running at a fever pitch.  Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) thought that they had formulated a reasonable compromise for their caucus in a CR effective through December 15 and maintaining all of the sequester spending cuts, while including a separable bill to “de-fund Obamacare.”  To pass the CR, the Senate would need to vote to continue implementation of the ACA – which they doubtless would do.  The Speaker and the Majority Leader argued that this would be a painful political price for the Democratic Senate to pay.

However, the Speaker’s bill did not achieve sufficient support in his caucus, given the anticipation that it would receive no Democratic votes.  There surely were several reasons.  The Speaker’s gambit clearly would not satisfy those of his Members who will not stop short of ending Obamacare and ending it now.  And some House Republicans probably agreed with a Senate Democratic aide who was quoted as saying that his bosses already had been forced to go on record on the ACA, one more such vote would not open up any additional 30-second campaign ads, and so the Democratic Senators would be very happy to receive the Speaker’s package and kick the appropriations can all the way to December.

The internal reaction to the Speaker’s plan, as reported in the press, was harsh.  Matt Kibbe, president of the tea-party-oriented group Freedom Works, said, “First Boehner betrayed us by supporting Obama’s war in Syria.  Now he wants to trick you into supporting Obamacare…  Boehner is jumping through hoops to help Barack Obama and betray the American people.”

Speaker Boehner was no more comfortably disposed.  When asked by a reporter if he had any new idea to break the logjam in his caucus, he answered, “No…  Do you have an idea?  They’ll just shoot it down anyway.”

The bottom line is fairly simple.  To keep the ACA, Democrats need do nothing.  To remove it, Republicans must get Democrats to act against their will, by either offering them compensation (What?  As noted above, some Republicans refuse to consider higher appropriations) or inflicting unbearable pain.  That would mean a government shutdown, or even worse, a default.  And that takes some Republicans’ memories back to 1995 and 1996, when the conventional wisdom says that the government shutdowns and the debt-limit crisis hurt the party and cost the 1996 presidential election.  But not everyone agrees with that post-mortem.  Newt Gingrich argued during his 2012 presidential campaign that his 1995-96 battles ended in victory.

Still, it is no great surprise that this intra-party debate is centered in the House.  With congressional district boundaries often drawn to protect incumbents, Members are being pulled to the ideological extremes, where the primary-election votes are.  Many Members – of both parties – probably believe that they personally would win from a knife fight over a government shutdown or even a default.  The question is whether they understand that the economy – and even their own national parties – could take a surprise gunshot in such a rumble.

As of today, 43 House Republicans – just over triple the magic number of 14 that Speaker Boehner can afford to lose – reportedly have signed on to a concept of a one-year appropriations bill that lifts the defense sequester and postpones the ACA for one year.  So Speaker Boehner cannot move his bill without those Members’ votes, but if he were to capitulate to that group, equal to less than one-fifth of his caucus, it is not clear whether he would lose other votes and still fall short.  And Senate Democrats and the President have stated categorically that those terms are unacceptable, and thus might well lead to a standoff and a government shutdown even if passed by the House.

It is hard to find closing words of comfort.  The House has only five more scheduled working days (four next week, and the 30th) before the end of the fiscal year.  And House rules require that a bill not be voted on until the third calendar day (excluding Saturdays and Sundays) on which it is available to Members.  It is as though a teenager were required to provide 30 seconds notice before touching the steering wheel in a game of chicken – admirable transparency, but perhaps just a mite off-putting under some circumstances.  (And yes, the rule can be waived – something that candidates for leadership positions like to promise that they will never, ever do.)

Sleep well.  And let me be the first to wish you a Happy New Fiscal Year.

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