House Republicans Quietly Return To Budget Stand-Off Mode, Renew Risk Of Government Shutdown


House Republicans have quietly returned to the stand-off driven approach to budgeting and must-pass legislation that was their hallmark before President Obama’s re-election.

On Tuesday afternoon the House passed a measure directing House appropriators, in the absence of a budget agreement with the Senate, to adopt spending levels in the Republican budget. That blueprint calls for enormous cuts to spending on everything from science research to education to health care, in order to rescue the Defense Department and other politically favored agencies from the ravages of sequestration.

The procedural move is technical, and it stems among other things from Republicans’ decision to abandon the very budget process they’ve demanded for the past four years. But it reflects their desire to jam Democrats and President Obama with spending bills that funnel billions of dollars out of domestic priorities into the Pentagon and other security programs, at the risk of a government shutdown“What the Republican did was cynically use the rule on a bill that will provide spending for our veterans — which is something we all support — to slash the part of the budget the funds our kids’ education and our investments and treatments and cures for cancer and other diseases. Slash that budget by over 20 percent below the sequester,” explained Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) — House Dems’ top budget guy — in an interview Tuesday with TPM.

After the House and Senate passed separate budgets this spring — something Republicans have been demanding for years — Democrats undertook a concerted effort to drag the GOP through formal negotiations until Congress reached a consensus on taxing and spending that ended crisis governing for the foreseeable future.

Republicans weren’t having it. They correctly identified the political perils they’d face by seeing regular order” to its conclusion. So for the past several weeks they’ve been stalling. They’ve refused to appoint negotiators in the House and have blocked Democratic efforts to appoint negotiators in the Senate

Without a negotiated budget, though, congressional appropriators lack the direction they need to allocate funds to accounts across the government. Tuesday’s move sets the spending levels in the Republican budget as the benchmark.

“The overall spending level is at the sequester levels,” Van Hollen added. “The veterans bill is going to be funded at pre-sequester levels. That’s going to be funding at a healthy level as if sequestration did not exist. And they’re going to do that for defense…. [I]t means you’re cutting other parts of the budget below sequester level.”

To take one example, this approach would require cutting the second largest appropriations bill — the so-called Labor/HHS bill — by $34 billion. Moreover, House Republicans call for shifting so much money from domestic spending into security spending that it would violate the terms of the Budget Control Act (better known as the debt limit deal).

The Obama administration has threatened to veto this bill unless it’s ultimately included in a broader effort to set the rest of the budget right. In other words, no special treatment for Veterans Affairs or the Pentagon, particularly if it comes at the expense of other spending priorities.

“Unless this bill passes the Congress in the context of an overall budget framework that supports our recovery and enables sufficient investments in education, infrastructure, innovation and national security for our economy to compete in the future, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto H.R. 2216 and any other legislation that implements the House Republican Budget framework,” the White House said this week.

Van Hollen supports the White House’s strategy — “ultimately there’s not going to be an agreement on these levels, which is why the White House issued its veto threat” — but somewhat contradictorily predicts the bill will pass with significant Democratic support, including his own.

And ironically, strong bipartisan showings for individual GOP-backed spending bills — for veterans, the Pentagon, etc. — will make it harder for Obama to sustain his veto threats.

“The way I interpret his threat is he also supports the veterans bill at that level but at the end of the day Congress better send me appropriations bills that meet all our needs, including our kids’ education, or I’m going to veto them,” he explained. In other words the bill is suitable on the merits, and in isolation, but will be rightly vetoed if Republicans don’t at least make similar accommodations for other spending priorities.

That’s not likely to happen. And Van Hollen acknowledges that will complicate things for Democrats as the Sept. 30 government shutdown deadline approaches.

“It’s important that the Senate make sure these bills don’t come out individually in the order you just talked about,” he said.