Media attention is focused on Congress for a number of reasons in the post-Thanksgiving period: Moore, Franken, Conyers, Barton. Also the Republican scramble to pass a partisan tax cut bill before the end of the year. Less noticed is the behind-the-scenes, bipartisan negotiation feverishly underway on an end-of-the-year spending package. The Continuing Resolution, or “C.R.,” presents enormous opportunities and risks for members of both parties.
Since Congress failed, as usual, to pass the appropriations bills by the October 1 deadline, legislators must extend existing spending levels to avoid a government shutdown. Despite the highly partisan atmosphere, virtually all extensions since 2011 have required the majority Republicans to seek Democratic votes because something less than 218 Republicans are willing to approve the essential spending.
Republican hardliners do not fear a shutdown; indeed, they insisted that John Boehner force one in 2013, a politically costly tantrum that cost the economy a stunning $24 billion in lost output, equaling 0.6% of projected annualized GDP growth, according to Standard and Poor’s. Pelosi regularly has delivered the votes to keep the government functioning, but only after exerting her leverage to remove every objectionable Republican provision. The acquiescence of the Republican speakers to her demands has infuriated the Freedom Caucus partisans who prefer a government shutdown to collaboration with Pelosi’s Democrats.
This time, Pelosi and Democrats are in a tricky position of their own. Democrats are feeling heavy pressure from core grassroots activists to withhold the votes needed to pass the CR unless Republicans agree to use the bill to resolve several high profile issues facing imminent deadlines: an extension (or replacement of) the DACA program for undocumented youth and the continuation of premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
GOP Leaders Ryan and McConnell (and President Trump, if he has a clue what this discussion is all about) doubtless believe they can resist making such concessions to their Democratic counterparts, confident that Pelosi and Schumer cannot abide withholding the votes that would result in a shutdown. They may be making a serious miscalculation.
Pelosi has recounted the discussion when Trump and other Republicans futilely attempted to bludgeon her and Schumer into accepting an 18 month budget/debt ceiling deal back in September. The GOP leaders glumly admitted they lacked the votes to pass their position, leading Trump to agree to Pelosi and Schumer’s 3 month extension. “Votes are the currency of the realm,” Pelosi noted, “maybe not on Wall Street or in New York real estate, but that is the case in Congress.” If McConnell and Ryan had the votes to go their own way, well, that’s what they would do. But if they didn’t, Pelosi reasoned, they would have to deal with her Democrats.
Using a stop-gap measure like a CR to resolve complicated policy questions like immigration or health policy is what political scientist Barbara Sinclair termed “unorthodox lawmaking.” But the stagecoach goes by the narrow point in the pass only so often, and you need to strike when it does. If Republicans call their bluff, Democrats can plausibly say, “We didn’t shut down government; we’re not in the majority. The Republicans have the responsibility to govern.” But they would find it more difficult to explain to core supporters that “We had them cornered and let them escape, so now Democratic constituencies face deportation and premiums spirals because we didn’t flex our muscle.”
While the negotiations continue in secret, it is essential that Democrats lay the predicate with the voters, the press and the media that the minority, has no burden to support a C.R. unless it is responsive to Democratic goals. As in 2013, Republicans might have to be allowed to fail at the most elementary of responsibilities – to keep government functioning. But can Democrats resist their instinctual urge to keep government open even at the expense of seriously disappointing their most loyal supporters on their highest priority issues?