To try to force the party’s hand, Senate Democrats say they will block every annual spending bill unless Republicans agree to a budget summit. Republicans, for their part, say they have no intention of caving to Democratic demands. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) say they won’t convene a budget summit and warn Democrats could earn the wrath of voters by blocking bills to fund the military.
Unless someone blinks, none of the 12 annual spending bills will be approved by this summer — leaving Congress on the brink of a shutdown in late September.
“Democrats once thought it was insanely radical for Republicans to oppose too much spending, but now think it’s perfectly reasonable to shut down the government when the spending bills don’t spend enough,” Boehner stated in a Monday memo to reporters. “We’re headed for another shutdown,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said of Republicans last week. “They did it once, they’re going to do it again.”
Democrats appear eager to return to shutdown politics, which have benefited their party in the past. When the government shut down for 16 days in 2013, Republicans largely got the blame. “If our Republican colleagues want to keep quietly paddling toward a government shutdown, that’s their choice,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said earlier this month.
Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said Democrats will get the blame for a shutdown because they’re taking the funding bills hostage. “It’s hard for someone who’s vowed to filibuster and block spending bills to blame someone else for shutting down the government,” he said. Still, Republicans are wary of the issue, given its history on Capitol Hill.
One likely way out is passing a continuing resolution (CR) at the end of September that would keep current funding levels in place. Some Democrats believe McConnell is angling for such a solution. The GOP leader has spent much of the year making the case that Republicans can govern ahead of a 2016 election in which his members face a difficult political map. Twenty-four Republican senators will be up for reelection, many of them in states won by President Obama in the last two presidential elections. “I think he sees that as the endgame. Everything else is just going through the motions,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “McConnell has already resigned himself to a CR.”
This would keep the GOP’s reputation for governing intact and spare the Senate leader from having to side with defense hawks who want to boost spending over fiscal conservatives in his conference who don’t want to lift the budget caps. A stopgap measure would extend current funding levels set by the accord reached at the end of 2013 by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), at the time the respective heads of the Senate and House Budget panels. Their deal halted the automatic spending cut known as sequestration. But extending it for another year would not offer any relief because the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act for fiscal 2016 is slightly higher than the top-line number set by Murray and Ryan for fiscal 2015.
McConnell, as usual, is playing his cards close to the vest, offering little hint of his next step after forcing Democrats to vote on the popular defense appropriations bill later this month. He and Boehner could agree to high-level budget talks later in the year, but only after forcing Senate Democrats to vote against a series of appropriations bills, giving ammunition to the argument that Democrats are obstructionists.
Democrats argue it will take at least two months to hash out a deal on a top-line spending number, which means a stopgap is the intended outcome. “If you wait until the end, you’re going to get a [continuing resolution,]” New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said at a press conference last week. “That’s what they want,” added Reid, who was standing next to his deputy.
GOP aides and strategists say McConnell will do everything in his power to avoid a shutdown — though he is unlikely to make his move until after the August recess. “If it has to go up until the brink of a shutdown, we’re likely to see a CR situation happening. I find it very unlikely that the Senate Republicans would allow a shutdown to occur on their watch,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Senate leadership aide.
The chore for McConnell and Boehner could be further complicated once the government needs to raise its debt limit. That’s likely to happen this fall. “I made it very clear after the November election that we certainly are not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt,” McConnell said earlier this year in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We’ll figure some way to handle that, and hopefully it might carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with it,” he said.
Another agreement to lift the spending caps when Republicans control both chambers of Congress would not go down well with Tea Party conservatives. The first Ryan-Murray deal was somewhat more palatable because Democrats controlled the Senate at the time. One conservative GOP aide said McConnell has weakened his own negotiation position by promising in advance not to let a government shutdown happen. The aide argued that Democrats can feel confident of winning concessions on spending increases by creating an impasse that threatens a shutdown.