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On Heels of Sequester, Lawmakers Move to Prevent Government Shutdown

March 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Although they missed the sequester deadline, members of congress are moving to lay the groundwork to prevent a government shutdown. Ray Suarez talks with The Takeaway's Todd Zwillich about the debate over the Republican spending measure, as well as potential political hurdles on Capitol Hill.
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RAY SUAREZ: Lawmakers missed last week’s deadline on the sequester. Today, they moved forward on laying the groundwork for averting a government shutdown later this month.

With the sequester now reality, House Republicans turned to a new issue, a spending bill to fund the federal government through September.

House Speaker John Boehner:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: The House will pass a bill there week to keep the government open through the end of the fiscal year. Spending is the problem here in Washington, and our goal is to cut spending, not to shut the government down.

RAY SUAREZ: The bill would leave the overall sequester cuts of $85 billion dollars in place, but it would also make adjustments, increasing Pentagon funding for military readiness and allowing the Border Patrol to maintain current staff numbers without the threat of furloughs.

Other changes would protect funding for federal prisons and for firefighting programs in the West, and ensure new funding for embassy security, all of that in a continuing resolution, or C.R.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: We are optimistic that we will be able to pass a C.R. both through the House and the Senate at the sequester level, and thereby not have a huge dispute over the continued operation of the government for the rest of the year.

There seems to be no interest on either side in having a kind of confrontational government shutdown scenario.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, Democrats will want some changes. For one thing, the Republican bill denies funding for implementing health care reform and overhauling financial regulation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: So what remains to be seen is whether this move apparently away from a crisis is truly a shift in strategy for the Republicans or just a short break from extremism that they have had over the last few years. They’re going to have make a decision soon as to what they’re going to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, current funding for federal operations runs out March 27, so Congress will have to act by then to prevent a government shutdown. And less than two months later, on May 19th, the nation will again reach the debt ceiling, its borrowing limit.

In the meantime, the Republican funding bill is set to advance through the House as soon as tomorrow.

For more on the upcoming debate over the Republican spending measure and the potential hurdles, we are joined by Todd Zwillich. He’s Washington correspondent for “The Takeaway” on Public Radio International.

Todd, welcome.

TODD ZWILLICH, “The Takeaway”: Good to be with you.

RAY SUAREZ: As we just heard, there’s more than one clock and more than one deadline. What’s job one for Congress right now?

TODD ZWILLICH: Preventing the government shutdown, as you mentioned in the piece, is job one.

And you heard a lot of nice talk there from the leaders about how they intend to avoid this crisis. And they do intend to avoid it. Whether they actually can is an open question. There are some land mines here as they try to pass this continuing resolution, with the sequestration cuts lingering in the background and policy differences between the House and Senate.

You see the House protecting some of their priorities. You mentioned defense spending and homeland security, border protection. The Senate Democrats want to do the same thing. And what’s really going on here is what you see is lawmakers kind of getting their authority back, authority that they have lost with all the budget-cutting going that has been on the last two years in Washington. Sequestration cuts takes away their authority.

Earmarks are banned. Being a lawmaker now, under Article I of the Constitution, being an appropriator, isn’t what it used to be. It’s now presiding over cuts. By making these changes that you mentioned there in the piece to the C.R. which holds spending levels constant, they’re taking back some of their own authority to say, yes, we’re going to continue at the same levels, yes, sequestration is still the law of the land, but we’re not going to rely on these broad, they call them meat axe cuts.

We’re going to say, yes, troop levels get this much funding, border security gets this much funding. Democrats want to say, we’re going to put money into Head Start. We’re going to put some money into education programs or transportation, grabbing their authority back from what they see as the broad cuts of sequestration.

RAY SUAREZ: People may be sitting at home listening to what you just said and think, I have seen this movie before. There’s just over three weeks until the sand runs through the hourglass, and the Republicans in the House and the Democrats and the Senate look like they’re going to come up with different versions of that continuing resolution.

Then what?

TODD ZWILLICH: It’s a game of Ping-Pong is what we call it on Capitol Hill.

The old idea of the House passes a version, the Senate passes a version, they get a conference committee together and work it out, that’s dead for now. There’s no capacity for a conference. What’s going to happen is the House is going to pass its bill tomorrow — likely tomorrow. We have a snowstorm coming. It was going to be on Thursday. They moved that up to tomorrow.

You have to watch that bill closely. How many Republicans does John Boehner get to vote for this bill? There are some conservative groups already, Ray. Club for Growth — pardon me, FreedomWorks, Tea Party group, important Tea Party group, has said to members, we’re watching this vote, vote no, it doesn’t cut spending enough.

There are conservative House Republicans who say, this bill is a great opportunity to repeal the contraception mandate under Obamacare. Democrats will revolt if that happens. Boehner passes this bill tomorrow, sends it to the Senate. Senate Democrats then, as Mitch McConnell so gratuitous — graciously said today, get to put their stamp on it.

Once that’s done, no conference. It goes back to the House. Now the conservative House Republicans have to stomach a bill that Senate Democrats, some of them liberals, Harry Reid, Barbara Mikulski, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, have their fingerprints all over.

And that means is a probable repeat of a dynamic we have seen with every tough vote. There may not be — in fact, there likely won’t be a majority of Republicans to prevent a government shutdown. John Boehner will have to rely on Nancy Pelosi to provide the votes. She has a lot more say than she used to in these things.

RAY SUAREZ: Unlike some of these other deadlines, is the thought of a government shutdown so frightening for political reasons to some of the players here, that they may have to bend in order to avoid the clock running out on March 27th?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, that’s exactly what you see here.

The leaders on both sides appear to have decided that a showdown over a shutdown is not in their interests. There have been some bloody fights in the past. Everybody knows that. There a couple of more to come in the future. Everybody decided that the polls are telling them that a shutdown won’t be in their interest.

It’s encouraging, in that the House is going to act here with a three-week window before time runs out. If this were a situation where they really were backing each other up against the wall and it were a real showdown, they tend to back those things up five days to go, four days to go, time to make decisions.

This three-week window helps to get an agreement, but there are land mines, as I mentioned, on John Boehner’s right with the House conservatives, and then sending that bill back, if they have to get an agreement in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats to get that magical 60 votes.

Then it goes back, and how many Republicans actually vote for it? How many votes does John Boehner have to go to Nancy Pelosi to provide to make sure the government doesn’t shut down? It’s not clear yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Todd Zwillich of “The Takeaway,” thanks for joining us.

TODD ZWILLICH: Pleasure.