Note to congressional Republicans: You won the battle over the stopgap spending bill. Time to declare victory and move on.
Washington has been transfixed by Sen. Ted Cruz's impossible quest to use a must-pass stopgap spending bill to "defund Obamacare." Never mind the fact that cutting off appropriated dollars -- the kind that annual spending bills control -- wouldn't actually stop the most important provisions of the ACA from going into effect, including the changes in Medicaid and Medicare and the new health insurance subsidies for low- and moderate-income Americans. Cruz simply didn't have the votes, or even the support of Senate GOP leaders.
The only real issue in the debate over the spending bill, HJ Res 59, is how much Congress will spend. The GOP-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have been at loggerheads on that issue since passing rival budget resolutions in March. The House's budget would rein in projected spending faster than called for in the 2011 budget deal, and, unlike that law's across-the-board sequester cuts, would take substantially less out of the Pentagon than non-defense discretionary programs. The Senate's budget wouldn't slow spending growth as much as the House proposal, and would replace the sequester cuts with a combination of tax increases, defense cuts and some changes in entitlements.
Those proposals were never reconciled because Republicans refused to let the two chambers convene a conference to hammer out the differences. Instead, it chose to put off those talks until the government was about to run out of money and borrowing authority. We're at that point now, and the GOP's strategy appears to be working.
The House's stopgap spending bill -- called a continuing resolution, or CR -- would keep the lights on at all federal agencies for about 2½ months, with an annualized cost of about $986 billion. Non-defense spending would be held slightly below the level that would trigger a sequester, while defense spending would be about $20 billion above it (on an annualized basis).
That proposed spending rate is well below what the Senate Appropriations Committee has been proposing. Following their chamber's budget, the Senate appropriators had assumed that the sequester would be repealed and that they would have $91 billion more to spend in the coming fiscal year than the House appropriators had proposed.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered a substitute to the House CR that would drop the "defund Obamacare" provisions and other politically charged riders. But rather than assuming the sequester was repealed, it would spend at roughly the same rate as the House CR -- about $986 billion. Aside from about $15 million in spending on the Affordable Care Act, the main difference between the two is that the Senate's proposal would provide funding for only 1½ months, as Democrats cling to the hope that they can strike a new, sequester-free deal soon with Republicans.
Good luck with that.
In short, Senate Democrats are temporarily giving up on the higher spending levels they had proposed, and will fight that issue another day. In other words, Republicans can declare victory and pass the stopgap bill, avoiding the threat of a partial government shutdown.
Except that they won't. House Republicans are reportedly considering a variety of new riders to attach to the CR when it comes back to them from the Senate a few days from now. These include provocative proposals to delay the requirement that all adult Americans obtain health insurance next year (a crucial element in the Affordable Care Act), cancel a tax on medical devices (also in the ACA), bar the government from covering any portion of the health insurance costs for lawmakers and their staffs, and to require President Obama to approve the Keystone XL petroleum pipeline.
And so the drama will continue, with all signs pointing toward a shutdown. As John "Bluto" Blutarsky (a fictional U.S. senator in the making) said in "Animal House," "Nothing is over until we decide it is."
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