In Rare Dose of Comity, Congress Takes Early Steps to Avoid Government Shutdown

The House Republican stopgap bill locks in the sequester cuts while cushioning their impact on party priorities.

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A tourist takes cover underneath an umbrella while snapping a photo of the U.S. Capitol as snow and rain falls in Washington, March 6, 2013.

Congressional leaders in both parties say they have no interest in shutting down the government when its funding expires late this month. Recent history suggests we should therefore be nervous it will happen. For the past two years Congress has jumped from one avoidable crisis to another, and even the shrewdest politicians seem no better than armchair pundits at predicting the next fumble by our dysfunctional government. Barack Obama vowed that sequestration “will not happen.” On the campaign trail, Paul Ryan railed against the policy, calling its impact “devastating.” When the sequester arrived, Republicans welcomed it with open arms.

But this time may be different. While the budget brinkmanship will surely return, the Capitol was visited this week by something rarer than the winter storm that blew through Washington on Wednesday: comity in Congress. With three weeks until a March 27 deadline to avert a government shutdown, the House on Wednesday passed a Republican stopgap bill that would supply funding through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

In a victory for hard-line conservatives, the legislation would fund government departments at the lower spending levels enacted by the sequester. It also cushions sequestration’s impact on several Republican priorities, most notably the Pentagon, which would be afforded a full-year budget and greater flexibility to implement the cuts. In addition, the so-called continuing resolution protects against furloughs for Customs and Border Patrol staffers, adds up to $2 billion in embassy security — a conservative concern in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last fall — and extends the pay freeze for federal workers.

(MORE: The Sequester Fight Was the Pregame. Here Comes the Main Event)

Fifty-three House Democrats joined their Republican colleagues to support the measure, which passed by a count of 267 to 151. In a sign that its success was inevitable, the House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer, told reporters Tuesday that while he recommended a ‘no’ vote, he would not whip against it. After weeks of warning that sequestration’s $85 billion in automatic spending cuts would wreak havoc on the economy, Democrats acknowledged that the continuing resolution — once viewed as a vehicle to undo the sequester — will instead lock in lower spending levels. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll reach a deal before we leave here for the Easter recess,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters. “So what remains to be seen is whether this move…is truly a shift in the strategy from Republicans, or just a short break from extremism.”

Next week the Senate will attempt to pass a resolution of their own that offers similar flexibility to as-yet unspecified Democratic priorities. “Senate Democrats are going to want to have some imprint on the version of the continuing resolution that comes over from the House. We anticipate that. What I believe will happen is that they’ll be in discussion with the House during the process,” said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. “We’d like to develop an endgame where whatever provisions are added in the Senate also pass the House.” In a statement of administration policy, the White House said it was “deeply concerned” about the cuts but did not threaten to veto the legislation.

The upshot is Congressional Republicans have successfully dragged the fiscal debate to the right even amid signs that the Tea Party ardor is cooling on topics like gays, guns and perhaps even immigration. It wasn’t long ago that Republicans were making noises about repositioning the party in the wake of Obama’s re-election. Potential presidential candidates like Bobby Jindal were warning that the narrow focus on slashing government spending had alienated vast segments of the voting public. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who spent the 112th Congress harnessing the Tea Party fervor for austerity, was said to be steering his charges “beyond the endless, and politically fruitless, discussion about debt [and] deficits,” as the New York Times reported just over a month ago. By reordering the cascade of fiscal crises facing Congress this spring, Republicans nabbed hard-won spending cuts over Democratic objections, and, at least so far, without sustaining much short-term damage from voters. Instead of ebbing, the GOP’s push for austerity shows signs of strengthening. Next week the party will reintroduce Paul Ryan’s budget, a document that calls for even deeper spending cuts than in years past, because it calls for the federal budget to be balanced within 10 years instead of 30.

(MORE: Congress Looks Past the Sequester Deadline and Braces for Long Fight)

This grim reality has frustrated Democrats, who have yet to figure out a way to neutralize the House GOP’s intransigence. “At some point in time, you have to tell the hostage-takers we’re not paying the ransom,” Hoyer said. “A shutdown is stupid policy, but the sequester is stupid policy. We’re doing stupid things here.”