Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says the government won’t shut down. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, agrees. But with fewer than five working days before the fiscal year ends, neither has explained how they intend to stop that from happening.
Instead, Republicans have made precious little progress in managing a political revolt within their own party that threatens both Boehner’s leadership and his ability to keep the government open.
Congressional staff and lawmakers speculate that the only way to avoid a shutdown will be for the House to vote in the final hours of Sept. 30, the deadline for a spending deal to be forged.
The fight that started in July over the fate of Planned Parenthood has merged with growing frustration among a pocket of loud conservatives over Boehner’s speakership and with presidential ambitions in the Senate.
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Boehner and McConnell aides are working closely together to craft a solution, and the Appropriations committees have already done the technical work necessary to provide a short-term bill. All of the pieces are there. The leaders agree on the need for a short-term, stopgap bill and Democrats say they welcome the news and are ready to talk.
So, it seems like the solution should be simple. But, as with everything else in Congress, things are not that easy. Here are five obstacles standing in the way of the government staying open:
1. Time. It typically takes about two days for the House to pass a bill. The Senate process takes at least the same amount of time. But, with the papal visit and observance of Jewish holidays, Congress is scheduled to be in session for fewer than five full days before Oct. 1, the day a shutdown would take effect.
The next several days are expected to be filled with more closed-door sessions and staff meetings as leaders try to finalize a plan for a short-term continuing resolution, or CR.
The Senate begins debate on a ban on abortions after 20-weeks of pregnancy tomorrow; it will hold a procedural vote on the measure on Tuesday. Democrats are expected to block it, stopping the bill from reaching a final vote. Republicans may still try for a second procedural vote on abortion or move on to the spending debate. On Wednesday, both chambers are out of session to observe Yom Kippur.
On Thursday, Sept. 24, both chambers will convene for a speech by Pope Francis, who is scheduled to depart the Capitol at 11 a.m. Congress could resume work in the afternoon.
Friday is expected to be a working day. The House is planning to finish work on a bill to speed up environmental reviews for development projects.
From there, the schedule is wide open. Both the House and the Senate are scheduled to be in session on Sept. 28, 29 and 30, which is a good thing.
2. Presidential candidates in the Senate are angling for free air time. With the Senate’s complex procedures, all it takes is an objection from one senator to brings things to a standstill.
And three of the four Republican senators running for president have taken a hard line on Planned Parenthood. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., could each capitalize on the shutdown fervor to get a boost in the polls.
Paul and Cruz have already demonstrated that a political show on the Senate floor is a great way to raise cash and get attention from voters. Neither has explicitly weighed in on blocking a spending bill, but Cruz stoked fears that he might do just that during a Fox News appearance last week.
Cruz was one of the early leaders of the movement to defund Planned Parenthood and has made the effort a key part of recent campaign speeches. He was also a big player in the 2013 shutdown fight after giving a 21-hour speech against the healthcare law on the Senate floor.
“You look at Republican leadership in Congress and their first step is always, always, always to surrender,” Cruz said during a Thursday interview with Sean Hannity. “(Voters are) looking for leaders who don’t just talk about it but have a record of standing up to Washington, standing up to both Democrats and members of our own party and Republican leadership as well.”
A Cruz spokesman did not respond to requests for more information on the senator’s specific plans regarding a spending bill.
3. Conservatives don’t trust leadership. When Republicans took control of the Senate in January, Boehner and McConnell promised they would overhaul the way Washington does business.
They pledged to defund the healthcare law, cut spending to sequester levels and to move each of the 12 appropriations bills. They said that process would allow them to roll back a long list of White House policies, including environmental regulations and executive actions to loosen immigration controls.
So far, none of that has happened – and their members are frustrated.
“I listened to Mitch McConnell’s election night speech and he said I’m going to change Washington,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “We’re looking at it and we don’t see any difference.”
Huelskamp was one of several conservatives who originally voted against the deep-cutting GOP budget earlier this year. Leadership convinced him to support their strategy by promising to use a procedure known as budget reconciliation to defund the Affordable Care Act. That maneuver would allow a simple majority in both the House and the Senate to slash funding for the president’s signature domestic achievement.
So far, there’s been no follow-through, and Huelskamp said he doesn’t trust leadership will make good on anything else.
He is one of 31 conservatives who signed a letter promising to oppose any spending bill that doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood, even if that means shutting down the government. Hoping to channel conservatives’ anger in another direction, House leaders responded by launching three separate investigations into Planned Parenthood, and backing bills defunding the group and adding restrictions for abortion providers.
The House voted last week to suspend funding for Planned Parenthood for a year and to require medical personnel to provide life-saving care for babies born during failed abortions.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who used to head the conservative Republican Study Committee, also floated a plan to defund Planned Parenthood through the same reconciliation process leaders said they would use to defund Obamacare.
But conservatives aren’t buying it. Most happily voted for the bills last week, but they'll continue to pursue the spending bill strategy.
“I applaud our leaders for this vote, but now is not the time to rest,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. “We must ensure that any funding bill we pass now contains absolutely no funding for such a barbaric organization.”
4. The fight is no longer just about Planned Parenthood. Republicans are frustrated and they feel like the spending debate is their last chance to guarantee a policy victory this year. Even if Boehner can satisfy the defund crowd, he will still be playing a game of whack-a-mole trying to figure out what, if any, short-term spending bill can get votes from the majority of his party.
For example, House leaders celebrated a tiny victory last week when Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., quit the Freedom Caucus over their hardline position on Planned Parenthood. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to support a short-term CR.
McClintock hasn’t decided how he'll vote yet, but he is seeking a House vote on each of the Appropriations-sanctioned spending bills. He then wants the Senate to act on the bills, ultimately convening a conference to settle any differences.
“The only justification for a short-term CR would be to complete that work,” he said.
But GOP leaders have already said they want to pass a short-term spending bill to allow for negotiations with Democrats on a larger spending deal, which would lift the budget caps and increase spending. If conservatives support that plan, some feel like they would be supporting a compromise that violates every promise leaders made about cutting spending and following regular order.
Republican Study Committee chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, wants to see the House vote on a wish-list style spending bill that that cuts spending to the sequester caps, chips away at President Barack Obama’s priorities and seeks to block the Iran nuclear deal.
“This is really the only type of aspirational appropriations plan,” Flores said.
5. Republicans hate Obama’s policies and want to force a veto. Republicans also know that even if they succeed in blocking funds for Planned Parenthood via a spending bill, the whole plan will end with a veto from the president. Frustrated conservatives want to force him to use it.
Obama’s veto power means that if Democrats can stay unified, they have the upper hand in every budget negotiation.
The White House has threatened to veto any spending bill that cuts spending to the sequester level caps.
Republicans realize that and they want to force Obama to make good on those threats.
“The American people need to know where (Obama) stands on things,” Flores said. “Right now he’s been hiding behind (Senate Minority Leader) Harry Reid.”