Congress Flirts With Another Government Shutdown as Election Looms
Policy + Politics

Congress Flirts With Another Government Shutdown as Election Looms

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

With many lawmakers chomping at the bit to return home to campaign for reelection, it’s hard to believe there is any serious talk about another government shutdown.

Congress is rushing to complete work on a large stop-gap spending package that would keep the government operating until at least December 9 – well past the November election and the start of a new fiscal year. Republican and Democratic negotiators are also trying to put the finishing touches on a number of other essential measures as part of that package, including $1.1 billion to help combat the dreaded Zika virus in Florida and Puerto Rico, and $500 million in disaster relief for flood-ravaged Louisiana.

Related: The Senate Dithers Again as Zika Virus Continues to Spread

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) are butting heads with Democratic leaders in the two chambers over a number of other unrelated legislative matters that have hung up the talks and now threaten to trigger a repeat of the last government shutdown in October 2013.

Political analysts are highly skeptical that either party would risk a government shutdown so close to the election, although stranger things have happened. With so much on the line for both parties, a government shutdown could become a runaway train, one highly embarrassing for both parties. 

“Logic would suggest no shut down, but logic doesn't apply in the midst of this dysfunction,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and sharp critic of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Late last week, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed federal agencies to begin planning for a possible halt in funding beginning midnight September 30 in the event the negotiations between the Republicans, Democrats and the White House collapse.  And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest warned that President Obama was willing to go to the mat to block an unacceptable stop-gap spending measure.

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“The President does not believe that a short-term budget measure that only exists because Congress hasn’t done their job in the first place should be used to pass ideological riders in the law,” Earnest told reporters. “And the President is not going to be a part of any effort to sign those kinds of ideological riders into law when they're attached to a short-term spending bill.”

The last thing that McConnell can tolerate at this point is political brinksmanship on the budget, either in the Senate where the Republicans hold a modest 54 to 46 seat majority, or in the House where Republicans hold a much larger majority but where Ryan has trouble controlling dozens of far-right conservatives who make up the Freedom Caucus.

On Thursday, McConnell introduced a new continuing resolution – relatively devoid of controversial riders -- and urged the Senate to quickly resolve their differences. “There have been broad requests for a clean continuing resolution, so that’s what I’ve just offered,” McConnell said on the Senate floor while filing for cloture. “It’s the result of many, many hours of bipartisan work on both sides of the aisle.”

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats refused to budge and are holding out for major concessions before they go along with the new CR. Among the Democrats’ demands: Adding $100 million in assistance to Flint, Michigan, to deal with lead contamination in that city’s drinking water, as a companion to the Louisiana flood assistance strongly favored by Republicans. The Democrats are also furious with a “poison pill” amendment added by the Republicans that would prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to publicly disclose their political spending.

Related: Congress Does It Again – Plays the Blame Game Over Funding to Prevent Zika

McConnell has fumed that the Democrats have intentionally held up action for their own political purposes – although the Republicans were the ones who decided to recess Congress for seven weeks over the summer -- and noted that the Republicans already have made a number of important concessions. Arguably the Republicans’ biggest concession was dropping an amendment to the Zika funding that would have prevented ProFamilias clinics in Puerto Ricco, an ally of Planned Parenthood, from using any of the funds to treat pregnant women infected by the mosquito-borne virus.

The Senate will resume the debate on Tuesday, but that will leave only four more days in which to negotiate a final settlement before current funding runs out and the federal government will begin shuttering many of its department and agencies, national museums, parks and monuments.

The crisis comes as the nation approaches one of the most significant presidential and congressional elections of modern times – elections that will determine whether Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will succeed President Obama and whether Republican can retain control of the Senate.  If the history of government shutdowns dating back to 1995 is any guides, Republicans typically get blamed more than the Democrats for these sorts of governmental crises.

“If the shutdown is a few days, it will be forgotten by November,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “But if this turns into a real stalemate, it would almost certainly hurt Republicans since they are in the majority in both houses.”

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A government shutdown similar to the one in late 2013 would discontinue all but the most essential government services, send millions of non-essential federal workers home without pay, and cause headaches and inconvenience for millions of Americans and businesses. Individuals and businesses rely heavily on the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Commerce Department and other agencies that provide important direct services to the public.

 Moody’s calculated that the economy lost more than $20 billion as a result of the last government shutdown, while the loss in Gross Domestic Product was estimated at up to 0.5 percent.

Republicans have struggled at times to make the case that they are effective stewards of the Congress and the White House. They face a difficult challenge especially amid a raucous campaign in which Trump repeatedly denounced the GOP controlled Congress, the Republican political establishment and even the past Republican administration of George W. Bush for incompetence.

“Trump could use a government shutdown as another reason to advocate for change and why Washington doesn’t work,” said Ron Bonjean, a Washington policy adviser and former Republican congressional aide. “Senate Democrats could also use it against the Republican majority to make their case about why they should be in charge.”  

Related: Outraged Americans Want Immediate Action on Flint Water

And yet Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democratic leaders must be careful not to overplay their hand or be seen as attempting to instigate another crisis by being intransigent.  

Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist and expert on Congress, said in an interview that there is little doubt the Republicans would be blamed for another government shutdown.

“They have much more control over the process than Democrats,” Baker said in an interview. “And although the Democrats clearly are delighted, I think, in the prospect of a shutdown for which the Republicans are blamed, they themselves are not blameless.”

An exasperated McConnell has repeatedly tried and failed to win Democratic support to move ahead with a continuing resolution, but has been thwarted at every turn by the Democrats who are digging in their heels on a number of issues.

Related: Congress Fumbles Again on Funding for the Flint Water Crisis

“The Democrats have been pretty good about pinning the blame for all of these extraneous riders on appropriations bills, but the Democrats have riders of their own,” Baker said.

“I do believe that a shutdown would hurt Republicans a little bit more, but it is not entirely clear cut,” added Ornstein of AEI. “Utter ineptitude in Washington plays to Trump's strength-- how could you even he be worse than what we have now? But for Republican incumbent in Congress, a shutdown is not a great argument for maintaining their majority. And to some degree the political dynamic depends on how a shutdown is framed. Is it Democrats filibustering a CR, or is it Freedom Caucus radicals demanding purity?”