In the Shutdown Showdown, A Temporary Reprieve

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At the end of this week, hundreds of thousands of workers will be furloughed, agencies shuttered and new government benefits suspended if Congress doesn’t act to reopen cash flow to the federal infrastructure. Rhetorical volleys between Democrats and Republicans in recent days suggest a short-lived agreement is near, and March 4 won’t see the first government shutdown since 1995. But that doesn’t mean the budget impasse is waning.

Last Friday, House Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers and the Republican leadership unveiled a package of $4 billion in cuts that would be tied to two more weeks of government funding. It appears to be a good faith effort to buy more time. If the cuts were stretched out over the remaining fiscal year, the dollar amount would scale to $61 billion, equal to the total amount called for in the House GOP’s ambitiously austere yearlong proposal, thus mollifying dogmatic Tea Party freshmen. But while the scope of the package is unyielding, its contents are largely uncontroversial. Rather than thrust cuts to Planned Parenthood or public broadcasting on Democrats who would undoubtedly reject them, Republicans picked a number of programs that Obama already proposed to nix (or, at very least, didn’t plan to expand). The measure would eliminate $250 million from the Striving Readers program at the Education Department, $650 million to the Federal Highways Administration and a host of agency earmarks, among other snips. There may be a few areas of contention, but the proposal isn’t packed with poison pills that would force Democrats to reject it and give Republicans an opening to blame them for the looming shutdown.

The Democratic response has been mostly positive. Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, the Democrats’ lead negotiator, called the package “acceptable” on Sunday. Majority Leader Reid’s office reported he was “encouraged.” Those comments are enough to suggest that the new continuing resolution will pass this week and the deadline to avoid a shutdown will be bumped back to March 18. But the most important thing to understand about these cuts is that this is the easiest it gets. For all the talk of “waste, fraud and abuse” in government, slashing non-security discretionary spending without nicking one party’s priority or another’s is difficult. When it comes to bipartisan agreement, the supply of obvious cuts is quickly exhausted. A successful short-term agreement means very little for the prospects of a lasting deal.

Just consider the origins of the current predicament. Since the beginning of 2011, the federal government has been operating on a crude, temporary continuation of last year’s budget, the details of which were largely mapped out in early 2009. Those spending levels were set long before Democrats passed their sweeping overhauls of health care and financial regulations, Tea Party calls for austerity made waves in the midterm elections, or the depth of the recession and the resulting short-term fiscal crisis were fully known. In light of those new realities, Democratic and Republican priorities further diverged and the two parties found themselves unable to pass a new budget for 2011. Republicans are eager to bleed dry the new regulatory beasts, new GOP members of Congress feel beholden to the Tea Party, and Speaker Boehner’s decision to allow a wide-open amendment process on his party’s budget proposal has put a spate of deep cuts forward that Democrats will never agree to, but that Boehner will be hard-pressed to abandon.

Even as passage of a temporary agreement nears, the same schisms remain. In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Obama tipped his hat to cuts, but mounted a unequivocal defense of some of the initiatives Republicans are bent on eliminating. “I’m willing to consider any serious ideas to help us reduce the deficit – no matter what party is proposing them,” he said. “But instead of cutting the investments in education and innovation we need to out-compete the rest of the world, we need a balanced approach to deficit reduction. We all need to be willing to sacrifice, but we can’t sacrifice our future.” Meanwhile, in the parallel Republican address, Ohio Senator Rob Portman made the case for broader short-term cuts, saying, “Getting our debt and deficits under control is the first step we can take, and the single most important step Washington can take, to get our economy moving and create the jobs we so badly need.”

We know at least one thing from the Republicans’ offer of a continuing resolution and the swift Democratic assent: Both sides are telling the truth when they say they don’t want to see a government shutdown on Friday. But if one looks weeks and months down the road, it’s still hard to see a path they can jointly take to avoid one.