Once upon a time, House Speaker John Boehner could use the threat of a debt default as leverage, and people would take him seriously.
Just two years later it’s quaint — a longing for a time when House Republicans could call the shots on Capitol Hill and Democrats had little choice but to acquiesce. Now, when Boehner tries to set the legislative agenda — as he did on Tuesday, insisting “we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending. It’s as simple as that.” — Democrats, and a group of Senate Republicans shake their heads and return to the business of governing.
The following won’t sound terribly momentous, but it should alarm Boehner and the rump of conservatives in the House who think they run the show in Congress. Indeed, what’s happening in the Senate right now is a recipe for the ultimate humiliation and defeat of the House GOP. Namely, the Senate is currently debating bipartisan legislation to fund the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, before appropriations expire at the end of September.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you — sounds boring, but in fact it’s highly consequential.
It’s true that the Transportation/HUD bill is only one of the 12 annual appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass each year. And because it has a large employment footprint and cross-ideological support, it typically passes in less polarized times with broad bipartisan support.
But these aren’t ordinary times. Back in the House, where Republicans are proceeding as if the 2012 election never happened, the partisan Transportation/HUD bill contains savage cuts to key bipartisan initiatives, including a 50 percent cut to Community Development Block Grants — one of the most popular things the federal government finances.
The only way a bill like that has a chance of influencing national policy is if Senate Republicans were still willing to filibuster traditionally bipartisan initiatives, in order to allow their House colleagues to jam the Senate. Instead, six of the Appropriations Committee’s 14 Republicans voted for the Senate’s Transportation/HUD bill. The committee has actually passed a half dozen appropriations bills on a broadly bipartisan basis. And even Republicans are making no secret of the fact that they don’t intend to let their House counterparts use the threat of a government shutdown to starve key investments.
“I would ask, have members actually reviewed what is in the House transportation and housing bill?” asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), in remarks at a recent Appropriations Committee hearing, lambasting the cuts in the House’s legislation. “Are we to be just a rubber stamp for the House, or are we going to produce our own bills, based on our best judgments, and then negotiate with the House? … I think we should face the fact that the House Transportation and HUD allocation is simply insufficient to meet the real needs for both transportation and housing, because it’s a $7.5 billion cut below last year.”
Unlike House Republicans, Senate appropriators have drafted their legislation to reflect the discretionary spending caps Congress set in the 2011 debt limit deal. They’re not trying to bake sequestration into the budget baseline, hoping to create a kind of permanent austerity. Sequestration will apply to the Senate bills if they become law, but if Congress subsequently rescinds the order, spending would automatically revert to consensus levels.
The upshot is that when the government shutdown deadline approaches in September, everyone in government except for House Republicans (and a few irrelevant Senate conservatives) will be lined up behind a blueprint to stave off another crisis, and they’ll be confronted with an unwelcome choice. How they address that choice will be their call — they could cave or punt or shutdown the government. But it will clarify for them how illusory their leverage is — both in the government shutdown fight and the subsequent fight over increasing the debt limit.
“There is bipartisan agreement that sequestration is the wrong way to cut spending — and bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done to fix it,” Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray said Tuesday. “So there is absolutely no reason for us to get closer and closer to October 1st — and closer and closer to another manufactured [debt limit] crisis — before getting to work on a solution.”
The group of Senate Republicans working constructively on appropriations overlaps broadly with the Republicans who’ve backed immigration reform, helped confirm several presidential nominees, and have been working behind the scenes on a budget deal that, if enacted, would replace sequestration and end debt limit brinksmanship, perhaps permanently. They represent the significant minority of Senate Republicans who are opposed to sequestration and fed to the teeth with their party’s dysfunction. They have been courted by key Democrats and the White House who want to put the last Congress’ way of doing things behind them.
Their cooperation — and their continuing participation in back-channel negotiations — suggests the White House’s “permission structure” is holding up in its early stages as intended.
If the negotiations bear fruit, then come the fall, House Republicans will face a similarly bad, but much more consequential choice: Cave, punt, or reject their marginal status and, like insurrectionists, choose default over the broad majoritarian consensus.
For the whole plan to work, though, the governing coalition Democrats have cobbled together will have to survive battles much more contentious than Transportation and HUD funding. And they should be prepared for countervailing forces on the right to take aim at these Republicans in an effort to return Congress to its natural state.