Don’t Look Down! Hill Republicans Walk A Tightrope To Avoid A Gov’t Shutdown

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September 24, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Republican leaders think they have a plan to avert a government shutdown. They now just have to hope that the hardliners pushing for one won’t find a way to thwart it — and there are many ways they could make things go wrong.

With a week to go before the deadline to pass a spending bill expires, GOP leaders in the House and Senate must guide a short-term funding bill through a delicate legislative process. Their plan depends on outmaneuvering the group of 30 or so conservative lawmakers vowing to block any funding legislation that includes money for Planned Parenthood. They must also sidestep Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who is openly threatening to make trouble in the Senate.

In the end, even the best-laid plans would only get a stop-gap bill through Congress. A long-term deal would still need to be worked out, and deep divisions remain unbridged. But it would buy time, avoid a needless government shutdown, and forestall the political firestorm Republicans would face heading into the 2016 elections.

Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) have made clear they believe that a shutdown over Planned Parenthood — accused by anti-abortion activists of harvesting fetal tissue for profit — is a political loser for their party. But their attempts to let conservatives express their anger through alternative anti-abortion bills have done little to diffuse the shutdown talk, leaving Boehner in particular dependent on Democratic votes to pass legislation to keep the government open.

“McConnell and Boehner truly see nothing to be gained by any kind of a shutdown at all,” Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who worked for the U.S. Senate for 25 years, told TPM. “[McConnell] is very careful and methodical, and if Boehner didn’t have to deal with those 34 or 35 wayward souls in the House, there would be no question on his part.”

The current plan goes like this:

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Thursday, after the Pope’s address, the Senate will vote on a short-term spending bill that defunds Planned Parenthood. That bill is expected to be filibustered by Democrats, and thus “prove” to conservative hardliners that blocking Planned Parenthood’s funding is, on a practical level, impossible. At least that’s the theory. Then, McConnell will bring forward a “clean” continuing resolution, which would keep the government open for a few months — likely through Dec. 11 — with spending being maintained at essentially its current levels, including the funding for Planned Parenthood. That measure could be passed late this week, or early in the next week, giving the House a few days at most to pass the same legislation itself.

“If we are gong to avoid a shutdown, if we are going to get some sort of short term deal by the end of next week, this is the way it’s probably going to happen,” Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told TPM. “But there’s plenty of places along the way that the plan could go off the rails.”

At every turn, there is chance for hardliners to stall the process. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for instance could delay the vote on the clean continuing resolution a day or two by objecting to a motion to take it up immediately, as he did in December. Cruz and two of the other GOP presidential candidates in the Senate have argued, against historical evidence, that Democrats would be blamed for a government shutdown.

Once the Senate passes a clean spending bill, it goes to the House, where Boehner has already taken the procedural steps to take up the bill immediately, according to Reynolds. However, the speaker — whose supporters fear he is facing another coup threat — will have to have to decide whether to rely on the help of Democrats from the get-go or try to placate hardliners one last time.

“Boehner may need to allow a shutdown to occur for a few days to give the Freedom Caucus a victory before he can work with Dems on a clean CR,” said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert and executive vice president at Qorvis MSL Group, in an email to TPM.

Aside from flat out opposing a short term spending bill, budget experts say there are other opportunities for conservatives to wreak havoc: if the legislation passes with any new amendments, it would have to go back to the Senate, or hardliners could attempt to derail the process to get the House to take it up immediately.

“This is a Boehner issue, and the high wire act is not just the continuing resolution, but it speaks to the future of Mr. Boehner and whether he will remain speaker,” Hoagland said.

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