Shut Down Averted, Now What?

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Stop the presses! The federal government won’t shut down on Friday!! Okay, for anyone paying even a modicum of attention to the news in the last week, this shouldn’t come as much of a shocker. But, the two-week deferral passed by the Senate today 91-9 does nothing to bridge the $60 billion gap between the two chambers. So, in order to avoid an eventual shut down it’s time to bring in the big guns.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that Vice President Joe Biden would be taking over negotiations on not just finding a resolution on a 2011 budget, but also on the looming vote to increase the debt ceiling and the broader issue of deficit reduction.** Simultaneously, the White House put out a press release saying Biden would lead a team of negotiators that will include Chief of Staff William Daley and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew.

I’d say this sounds a lot like the beginnings of a grand bargain, only such an endeavor would require Republican participation. At a follow-up press conference House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this is the first they’d heard of the Administration’s involvement. Boehner said that although he’s been in discussions with Senate Democrats “for weeks,” he’s frustrated by the opacity of the talks. “We need to know what’s on the table,” Boehner told reporters. “We passed our bill, you know where the House stands. Where does the Senate stand?”

But given the two-week deadline the House will have to be involved in crafting the Senate bill. There will not be time for the Senate to produce its version and then conference it with the House bill. So, negotiators must aim to craft a bill in the Senate that can also pass the House, thus avoiding a conference and truncating the process. Reid lamented the expedited schedule, saying he’d offered several options with longer timetables that Republicans rejected. “If you give Congress four weeks, it’ll take four weeks. If you give them six weeks, it’ll take six weeks,” Boehner said. “We’ve got two.”

Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, and McConnell have a proven working relationship. Their backroom talks yielded a swift agreement on the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts during the lame duck session. Two weeks, though, might be too short a time to yield a solution that will pass both chambers especially considering that bills this big – numbering in the thousands of pages – take several days to draft once an agreement is reached. The House also has a rule that all members must have a copy of the bill 72 hours before any votes. If negotiators want to see scores from the Congressional Budget Office, those also take several days to produce each. Oh, and did I mention that the two sides are $60 billion apart and the House bill is full of what the Senate considers poison pill riders such as the defunding of health care reform, Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change regulations? And this is just the work for a compromise on the 2011 spending measure, let alone the other issues that Reid says are on the table. Which is why aides from both parties in both chambers privately acknowledge that a second two-week stopgap resolution will probably be necessary.

**Update: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney batted down this idea in today’s briefing, saying Biden would just be focusing on the 2011 omnibus.