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Government Shutdown Possible as Congress Debates Budget Cuts

February 21, 2011 at 6:28 PM EST
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The prospect of a federal government shutdown inched closer after the House passed a funding measure calling for $61 billion in cuts to this year's budget. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Judy Woodruff talks with the New York Times' John Harwood about whether lawmakers will strike a deal by the March 4 deadline.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, from the face-off in Wisconsin to a looming showdown in Washington.

The prospect of a federal government shutdown became more of a reality over the weekend, after the U.S. House passed a funding measure to last through September, calling for $61 billion in cuts. The reductions include $3.8 billion in the Department of State and foreign operations budget and $2.7 billion in Environmental Protection Agency appropriations. House Republicans also approved a proposal to block funding for implementing the health-care reform law.

Well, for their part, Senate Democrats argue the House cuts go too far. Lawmakers must strike a deal by March 4, when the current funding runs out, to avoid bringing the federal government to a halt.

And joining us now to talk about all this is John Harwood. He’s the political reporter for The New York Times.

John, what a story. Give us a sense of some of the other spending cuts in this legislation that have Democrats so upset.

JOHN HARWOOD, The New York Times: Well, it’s really across the board. And some Republicans are upset, too.

Remember, Judy, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, sits on the Appropriations Committee. So, you can bet that there are cuts in this House bill that he privately disagrees with, although his public posture is that he supports the bill.

But it goes across the range of things. It’s difficult to isolate a few high-profile programs, because almost every program, education programs, health and welfare programs, the women, infant and children nutritions program in the Agriculture Department, one that has been very popular over the years, we’ve seen all of these things touched, as well as you mentioned the foreign operations. Some foreign aid programs have also been cut.

So, it’s going to be difficult to — to focus on just a couple. Everybody gets hit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it the showdown that it looks like it is, or is there, behind the scenes, some talking going on? We’ve got, what, a week before they even come back into session. And then they have got that tight deadline.

JOHN HARWOOD: Well, I think there is a lot of talking going on behind the scenes, certainly at the staff level, maybe at the principal level, although we don’t know all of those discussions, because some people have gone dark in terms of communicating about that.

But long story short, Judy, I don’t think there’s going to be a government shutdown. I think the Republicans know that — and the polling tells us this — that, if there is a government shutdown and voters don’t like it, as they didn’t like it in 1995-’96, they’re going to get blamed because the president has done a better job of persuading the American people that he’s reaching out to Republicans than they have of convincing people they’re reaching out to Democrats.

The question is how do you get to that choreographed outcome that allows John Boehner to lead his freshmen, who are very ardent for the cuts that they have put through, to accept some lesser level of cuts that allow them to make a deal for the rest of this fiscal year?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly. I mean, these Republicans held firm for $60 billion — I mean, there was a proposal for $30 billion. There was a proposal for — they insisted on the biggest possible cuts that they could get, these new House Republicans.

What’s to make us think that they’re going to go along with moving in the Senate direction, which is going to be smaller cuts?

JOHN HARWOOD: Well, it’s interesting.

I was talking to one of the leadership aides on the House side today, who said, don’t believe all the talk that you’ve heard that John Boehner cannot control his caucus.

We’re going to find out in the next couple of weeks, because John Boehner, as a veteran deal-maker and legislator in the Congress, knows that he’s not going to get $61 billion in cuts. So, how much below current spending levels do you have to go for him to be able to get a deal? And will that deal include some Democrats and Republicans, and you get some Republicans who want bigger cuts defecting? Is he willing to take that kind of an outcome?

Some of this is going to get settled, I think, Judy, in discussions between Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, because Mitch McConnell is going to help Harry Reid figure out what can get 60 votes in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Republican-to-Republican, essentially?

JOHN HARWOOD: Yes. Yes.

It’s a multi-level conversation. There will be the White House to Republicans, the White House to Democrats, House and Senate Republicans talking to one another. And then Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell over in the Senate served together a long time. They’re going to have a discussion to figure out, what can they move that they can then send back to the House that the House can take?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the government shutdown. Everybody assumes that — everybody is basing this on what happened back in the ’90s. The government was shut down because of what the Republicans did. They were blamed. Everybody decided — is everyone in agreement that it’s equally unpopular today? Any sense that public opinion has shifted and…

JOHN HARWOOD: Well, certainly, Republicans…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that people don’t want cuts so badly, that they’re willing to see the government…

JOHN HARWOOD: Well, certainly Republican conservatives argue that it is different, that the numbers are so big. A trillion-and-a-half dollar — trillion-and-a-half deficit is simply changing the public mood.

But one of the things that we’ve seen consistently is that, though voters want government smaller in general, they want spending cut in general, when they get to some of the specifics, it’s not so easy to sustain political support.

And I think if you didn’t have Republicans knowing that a shutdown was going to be unpopular, you wouldn’t have had Paul Ryan say over the weekend there’s not going to be a shutdown. You wouldn’t have Republican leaders saying, “it’s all the Democrats talking about shutdown. We don’t want that to happen.”

There’s a reason they don’t want that to happen, and that’s because they think it’s going to backlash politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the sense is, John, that they can get this done by, what is it? March the 4th is just around the corner.

JOHN HARWOOD: I think they can get it done.

There’s disagreement on that. And some people think that these 87 freshmen Republicans are going to stand up and insist on a level of cuts that the Senate simply can’t pass. I don’t think that’s likely to happen.

I think what you’re going to see is some brinkmanship, either the Senate taking up the House-passed bill, sending something back and then have a negotiation. Or perhaps, if the Senate refuses to do that, then the House will put a short-term extension, two weeks, a month, some lesser period of time, that has some cuts.

Remember, John Boehner said late last week: We’re not simply going to extend at current levels. But he didn’t say how much below current levels he would take in order to get a short-term extension. My guess is it’s not going to take all that much to get that extension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, John, the role the president plays in this. How much clout does he have? How much does he sway the final outcome here?

JOHN HARWOOD: Well, the fact that the president’s numbers have risen since midterm elections gives him some leverage.

The poll numbers that I mentioned that show the public crediting him with wanting to work with Republicans gives him some leverage. And one of the reasons for those poll numbers is that deal he made in the lame-duck session on tax cuts. He was seen as compromising with them on extending those Bush-era tax cuts.

Certainly, it’s easier to give people money through tax cuts than it is to take away in spending cuts, but he won some credibility with the public there. And so he has some cards to play. He will also, by the way, if there is a shutdown, have some discretion in exactly what parts of the government get shut down and how quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Harwood of The New York Times, we will be watching this one, too, along with Wisconsin.

JOHN HARWOOD: It’s going to be great.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.