War Gaming A Government Shutdown

A lot of recent reporting on sequestration and expiring government funding legislation reflects the notion that a government shutdown is more or less off the table — that because the White House doesn’t want one and Republican leaders don’t want one, a ’95 style shutdown isn’t a real possibility.

Both of those things are true. Several key players in this negotiation would like to avoid a shutdown. But as we’ve been trying to reinforce in our reporting, that doesn’t settle the question.The appropriations debate has reached a quasi-stable equilibrium. If all goes as planned, Congress will pass legislation to fund the government through September before existing funds lapse on March 27, and then policy makers will return their attention to issues like immigration reform, gun control, sequestration and the budget.

But introduce one small surprise and the whole process could collapse.

First things first, the House has to pass the continuing resolution GOP leaders introduced yesterday. Democrats don’t like that funding bill as is. They recognize that it isn’t the craziest thing Republicans have introduced — and even includes some major sweeteners for Democrats in defense-heavy districts and others. But they think it’s unfair that it gives defense special treatment under sequestration, but doesn’t include similar treatment for key domestic priorities. The whole point of sequestration was to inflict equal pain to the parties on issues and programs each hold dear.

The question is: Should House Democrats help John Boehner pass it? The conservative group FreedomWorks is opposed to the bill and are warning Republicans against voting yes; several Republicans want to use it as a vehicle to repeal the health care law’s contraception mandate. It seems very likely that Boehner will need at least a fair amount of Democratic help to get it passed.

So what will Democrats do? For now, they’re biding their time — preserving their right to oppose it en masse if they ultimately determine that’s the strategically wisest course.

There’s a few reasons for that. For starters, House Dem leaders believe that sequestration effectively violates the government funding agreement they reached with Republicans and the White House in 2011, and want it turned off and perhaps replaced before green lighting any appropriations. But more importantly, Senate Democrats will want a chance to amend it — to lock in key domestic priorities so that they don’t get hammered by sequestration — and if a bunch of House Democrats support Boehner’s CR, Senate Democrats lose a lot of leverage. After all, why would Senate Republicans allow them to make any major changes to a bill that a). averts a government shutdown, b). is weighted toward GOP priorities, and c). passed the House with a ton of Democratic support.

So for now House Democrats probably won’t advertise any favors they plan to do for Boehner, and may even withhold their votes and force him to pass it on his own. If he can.

That’s the first way this thing could come apart.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are trying to reach an agreement on how to amend the CR if and when it arrives from the House. If such an agreement were already in place it would clear up a lot of the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of a government shutdown. House Democrats could vote their consciences without altering the balance of power in the Senate, and the Senate could amend it and send it back to the House for final passage.

But Senate Republicans are also watching Boehner’s back. They won’t allow too many changes to the CR because they don’t want to put Boehner in a tough spot with his own members if and when they return the bill to the House.

So that’s another source of volatility. Democrats, obviously, don’t want to tie their own hands just to help Boehner preserve the Hastert rule. That’s the principle that no measures should pass the House without the support of the majority of the majority. Boehner’s recently run afoul of this principle three times. He says he doesn’t have much of an appetite to do it again. And if rank and file Republicans don’t like the changes the Senate makes to its CR, he’ll have to decide, one more time, whether to side with his members or put the government back on a path to shutdown.

That’s a third flashpoint. Keep all of them in mind next time you read that the White House and Congress have essentially reached detente over funding the government.