Congress's new brinkmanship: Better or worse than politics as usual?
The old way of resolving disputes on Capitol Hill – backroom deals greased with US dollars for lawmakers' districts – has been replaced this year by a new brinkmanship. But the game of chicken has its own unintended consequences.
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As part of the debt-ceiling deal, Congress set a level for discretionary spending for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 – typically the toughest issue to resolve in any budget cycle. Leaders of both parties predicted that such funding would pass without a hitch. Then, House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia drew a new line in the sand: Given the tough financial climate, Congress must make spending cuts to offset higher funding for disaster relief for the balance of fiscal 2011, included in the fiscal 2012 bill. Obama requested $500 million in emergency disaster spending. House Republicans offered $1 billion, but at the price of $1.5 billion in cuts from clean energy programs popular with Democrats.Skip to next paragraph
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This time Democrats drew their own line in the sand. If the "Cantor principle" prevailed, they said, the GOP could leverage every flood, fire, or hurricane to squeeze out more spending cuts, probably at the expense of education or services for the poor. With all but two states classified as disaster areas, Democrats expected public support for their position.
Neither side blinked. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the House bill. The deadlock was resolved only after the Obama administration announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could get by until the new fiscal year without extra disaster relief funds. With FEMA offsets resolved, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to fund government through Nov. 18. The House is expected to pass the measure on Tuesday, giving Congress another six weeks to approve funding for fiscal 2012.
“Hopefully, we can certainly avoid any kind of shutdown talk this time, get it done, and continue along our mission to try and change the way that spending occurs in this town,” said Representative Cantor on Oct. 3.
But both sides emerged from the first 2012 budgetary skirmishes on track to continue the brinksmanship.
"Democrats decided to come back with their own credible threat not to give in, even when faced with the prospect of a government shutdown," says Mr. Ornstein. But with the details of 2012 spending unresolved, plenty of latitude exists for further brinkmanship, he adds.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are preparing policy riders, sure to be controversial, for the remaining 2012 spending bills. Likely next flash points will be proposed GOP riders that would rein in government regulation, defund implementation of health-care reform, limit the scope of the National Labor Relations Board, and strengthen language banning the use of public funds to pay for abortions and protecting doctors who refuse to perform them.
"This succession of fiscal crises casts government in a terrible light to the public," says political scientist Ross Baker, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There's real institutional damage that results from these threatened shutdowns and being on the threshold of default."
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