The coming appropriations veto battle between the president and Congress already appears to be the most significant spending scrum since the partial government shutdown in 1995, and both sides are preparing to point fingers if there is a repeat of history.
In 1995, the new Republican majority under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) set up the shutdown showdown when they refused to pass “clean” stopgap spending bills, instead attaching their own budget, which President Bill Clinton then vetoed.
Republicans have been raising the possibility of another government shutdown this year, warning that if Democrats insist on spending more than President Bush has requested, they should reap the blame for any breakdown. Democrats, meanwhile, say a shutdown would occur only if Bush and the Republicans force one.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) raised the threat of a shutdown last week.
“I do think it’s important as we approach what is inevitable in terms of a CR-shutdown scenario that the side that’s the most willing to try to work toward a solution, ultimately, I think is going to win,” Blunt said.
He predicted the House would be working until Christmas trying to resolve the issue.
“You’ll have an omnibus, you’ll have a CR, and you have the potential to have all those happen as you get to the end of the year,” he said.
Blunt said Democrats won’t be able to override the president’s veto on an inevitable omnibus.
“The Democrats were talking among themselves, I believe, this week about, ‘Do we want to wait till the last minute?’ or ‘Do we just want to recognize the fact that the Senate is not going to pass these bills?’” he said.
Republicans say that if Democrats do what Republicans did and add extra items to a stopgap continuing resolution, they will bear the blame.
“I cannot believe out of 435 Members of Congress anybody wants to shut down the government,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I believe it is totally avoidable.”
Of course, for Hensarling, that means Democrats must continue to bring “clean” stopgap spending bills without add-ons to the floor. “We can do a CR and continue to have this debate. … That is totally in control of the Democrat Party,” he asserted.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member of the Budget Committee, said the problem is that Democrats want to increase spending by more than 9 percent.
“There’s no question we’re going to have some kind of a showdown at the end of the year,” Ryan predicted. “I don’t think an actual shutdown is necessary if we just pass straight CRs. The problem is the majority might see that as a leverage point and advantage in pushing an actual shutdown so they can load up a CR with strings.
“If they refuse to pass clean CRs, they are responsible for the shutdown, period, end of story.”
Democrats have not guaranteed they will pass clean CRs indefinitely but say they have no desire for a shutdown, either.
“It’s not the interest of Democrats to shut down the government, believe me,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. “Who do you hurt when you do that? You hurt people.”
But Serrano said the minority often complains about items added to supplementals or CRs. “I doubt that we will ever have bills that the minority will not try and complain about,” Serrano said.
“Their objective is to look for a fight at all costs,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “We’re willing to work with the president and we’re hoping they’re willing to work with us.”
So far, there has been little sign of any wiggle room with the president’s demand that Democrats keep to his spending level.
Democrats have tried to minimize the $22 billion difference between their bills and the president’s budget and have expressed confidence that the two sides can come to a reasonable agreement. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) released a letter to the White House two weeks ago calling for an accommodation on the issue, and leaders met at the White House last week. But despite a collegial meeting, there was no sign of any real progress.
Indeed, any thaw was chilled almost immediately.
Pelosi called the difference very small in the context of a $2.7 trillion budget, while Bush retorted at a press conference the following day that only “career politicians in Washington” could dismiss $22 billion as small.
“It’s hard to predict how this thing will fall out,” Serrano said. “August is a long month and people have time to think and rethink.”
The administration also says it wants to avoid a shutdown and proposes a solution: Spend less.
“The administration is dedicated to making sure the federal government continues its operations without interruption, which is precisely why we have expressed our concern and have been continually calling upon Congress to do its fundamental responsibility and pass individual appropriations bills,” said Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. “If the Democratic Congressional leadership knows they cannot sustain a strategy of trying to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars, then perhaps they should shift themselves more toward the reasonable and responsible top-line spending levels the president has proposed.”
A Democratic leadership aide suggested the Republicans want a government shutdown. “This is the Newt Gingrich playbook,” the aide said. “It failed once, it’s going to fail again. The American people trust Democrats to meet their priorities and we will. Republicans are looking for a fight.”
There appears to be little incentive for either side to give in anytime soon. Some Republican conservatives have been eager for a veto battle to help restore their party’s creditability on fiscal responsibility, while long-out-of-power Democrats have many interests that are demanding their slice of pie.
Democrats and the president have relatively poor ratings among their own party’s supporters, and if either side caves early without putting up a major fight, it could depress those numbers even further.
Democrats intend to take the fight to the public, arguing that the difference in spending between Congress and the president amounts to less than two months of spending on the Iraq War.
The Iraq debate likely will get tied up with the spending battle, as Democrats may roll all of the spending bills with the Iraq spending bill into a giant omnibus bill. During the debate on the Iraq supplemental earlier this year, Democrats ultimately caved on Iraq War restrictions, and Bush agreed to $17 billion in extra spending.
Democrats want a similar amount of extra spending this time around but may be slower to embrace a spending bill without a real timeline for withdrawal.
Susan Davis contributed to this report.