Government Shutdown: What’s Holding Up a Budget Deal?
Less than 10 hours before the U.S. government runs out of funds, Congress is frantically trying to find a resolution—and failing to do so. Here’s a quick guide to what’s preventing a deal and what scenarios exist for both sides to go forward.
Close call! Congress has reached a tentative deal to avoid a government shutdown, according to remarks made by Speaker John Boehner to his caucus late Friday night. “This is the best deal we could get out of them,” Boehner told rank-and-file Republicans after a marathon meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The House is now preparing to pass a five- to six-day continuing resolution on Friday night that would cut $3 billion until a fuller deal can be worked out. Reid is scheduled to address his own chamber this evening as well.
Here’s a quick guide to what scenarios exist for both sides to go forward. Plus, full coverage of the impending shutdown.
The Budget-Cut Fight Has Come Down to Less Than $5B
Budget cuts might seem like the central issue, but at this point it appears the matter is resolved. Democrats insist there’s agreement on a rough number for the cuts, while House Speaker John Boehner has been equally insistent that everything, including how much to cut, is on the table. The rumored number: $38 billion, meaning that Congress will pass a budget that’s $38 million less than what President Obama requested for fiscal year 2011. The process of arriving at that figure has been brutal. Democrats proposed $10 billion in cuts, while Republican leaders recommended $61 billion—a figure that has irked Tea Party-aligned members of the caucus, who wanted to cut the budget by $100 billion, as many of them had demanded during their election campaign. A week ago, it appeared the two sides were close to an agreement to cut $33 million. But on Tuesday, Boehner, under pressure from Tea Partiers, raised his demand to $40 billion. Rumor has it that the two sides are close to a number between $35 billion and $40 billion. The fury over several billion dollars—with plenty of light but little heat on both sides—needs some context: Total discretionary spending for 2011 is nearly $1.4 trillion.
Policy Riders Are Holding Up a Budget Deal
Many analysts believe the real sticking points now are policy riders, or special amendments tacked on to the budget deal, although Boehner says the matter is resolved and that spending remains the problem. Both the potential riders are backed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. One would block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases; that issue, though contentious, has faded ( Democrats say it’s been resolved, while Republicans say it hasn’t). The bigger problem now is funding for Planned Parenthood, although it’s often described as Title X, for the provision under which federal funds go to the group. Title X, passed in 1970, uses federal funds to pay for family planning services, and Planned Parenthood is a major beneficiary of the law. The group has long been a target of the GOP, which opposes Planned Parenthood’s offering of abortions. (It’s illegal to use federal funds for abortions, but conservatives reason that every federal dollar that goes to Planned Parenthood frees up other money in its budget to go toward its abortion practice.) Video stings this spring provided fresh fuel for the fire, and social conservatives have insisted that any deal come with an agreement to stop the flow of federal dollars to Planned Parenthood.
While the Democratic caucus has been willing to make several concessions on spending cuts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and members of his party have refused to budge on the Planned Parenthood issue, insisting that such a move would deprive many women of basic care like pap smears. Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and Pat Toomey broke ranks Friday afternoon, saying that while they support the aim of the riders, shutting down the government over them is not worth it. The key point to watch on who wins this fight: If the rider stays, Democrats blinked first. If the rider is gone from the final deal, it’s a sign that Republicans got skittish.
Why Can’t There Be Another Continuing Resolution?
This isn’t the first time the government’s been close to running out of funds; several times this year, Congress has passed “continuing resolutions” that provide money for a short period of time, such as a week, while negotiations continue. For the last couple of weeks, both sides have been saying that they wouldn’t agree to another CR. But Thursday, with no deal in sight, Speaker John Boehner announced the House would vote on another continuing resolution—which would provide funding for the government for one week and funding for the military through the end of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2011, while also cutting $12 billion in additional spending. President Obama deemed that bill “a distraction” and said he would veto it. But Obama also said he’d be open to signing a CR if a long-term deal is imminent but some breathing room is necessary to move it through Congress.
What if Congress Misses the Midnight Deadline?
If there’s no deal, the government shuts down. On the most basic level, that means that most federal agencies will cease functioning, with only “essential” workers remaining on the job. The Office of Management and Budget says that means about 800,000 federal employees will be furloughed. (For more, see The Daily Beast’s guide to what happens in a shutdown). But Congress and the president are exempt from the furloughs and are expected to keep working past midnight to hammer out a deal. With the two sides close, it’s expected that a deal will come relatively quickly, meaning a short shutdown. But if the sticky problems can’t be resolved, we could be in for a long closure.
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.