Riders on the (Shutdown) Storm

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The budget debate is far from over, but the good news is that they’re still talking: Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner are heading back to the White House at 1 p.m. on Thursday. But the morning’s gloomy prognostications don’t bode well for the chances of averting a government shutdown.

If you listen to Reid tell it, the sticking point in the negotiations on funding the government isn’t money. “The numbers are basically there,” Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday morning. “But I am not nearly as optimistic as I was 11 hours ago. The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology … The two issues holding us up are the choice of women, reproductive rights, and clean air. These matters have no place on a budget bill.”

Reid was referring to two of hundreds of controversial riders that were attached to the House omnibus bill funding the government for the rest of 2011. The amendments would defund everything from health care reform to Planned Parenthood to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases. They came in the form of riders because by law, legislating is not supposed to be done on the back of the budget. In other words: if you have a problem, go through the regular committee process. “This is a bill that funds the government. It shouldn’t be a bill changing the EPA’s rules and regulations. That should be done on environmental legislation,” Reid lamented. “And we can’t just walk out of a room and resolve an issue that has been around for 40 years, like abortion.”

Boehner disputed Reid’s take in a press conference 90 minutes later. “I think we were closer to a number last night than we are this morning,” he told reporters. “Our goal has never been to shut down the government … All of us want this to be finished … [But] we have policy provisions we feel strongly about.”

Let’s be realistic: I don’t think Boehner has any illusions that he and Reid and Obama are going to magically solve the abortion or climate-change debates overnight. But what has always been the case is, if the Republicans don’t get their riders, they’ll want more money. The Democrats don’t want to give any more money, and they categorically reject almost all of the riders, thus the impasse.

Meanwhile, the House on Thursday is voting on a one-week, temporary extension that would slash $12 billion from the budget — cuts negotiators have already agreed to — and fund the military through the end of the year. Democrats have declared the extension DOA. “The President has told the Speaker, and I have told the Speaker, that it’s a nonstarter over here,” Reid said. “There will be no more short term [continuing resolutions] unless they’re clean, to give all us a few more days to work out funding the government.” Minutes before the White House meeting was set to start, Obama issued a veto threat on the bill.

The clock is ticking. Government funding will expire at midnight on Friday, and a lot will depend on where the leaders are at that moment. If they’re close to a deal, they’ll keep working, and hopefully the shutdown will be limited to just the weekend. But if they end up where they are right now — miles apart and digging in their heels — then the deadline will mark the beginning of a war in which both sides hunker down for a massive and costly fight, in terms of economics and political capital.

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