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A Budget Bluff-Off, Four Months Before the Next Cliff Walk

The House is moving ahead with its plan to pass the year’s first two spending bills before going home for the weekend Thursday afternoon. There’s bipartisan agreement, albeit for different reasons, to ignore President Barack Obama’s warning that lawmakers are wasting valuable legislative time.

The White House made its first symbolically important move in the 2014 appropriations game Monday, declaring the president would veto any measure that would carry out the stated aspirations of the majority Republicans in the House.

The GOP’s opening gambit, in turn, is to write a dozen bills that would essentially cancel next year’s sequester cuts for national security enterprises and come up with the necessary money by imposing deeper-than-sequester cuts on social and domestic programs.

The administration says the whole annual appropriations process should be put on hold until the GOP House and Democratic Senate settle on an overarching budget blueprint that would turn off the sequester altogether, presumably with some combination of entitlement curbs and revenue enhancements. But, daily posturing on both sides notwithstanding, that’s nowhere close to happening.

And so House leaders on both sides agreed without hardly a word of discussion to press ahead and to encourage their rank-and-file to vote however they choose on the initial appropriations bills. Both measures support programs with near-universal political appeal: The one debated Tuesday would boost spending on veterans programs by 3 percent while cutting the military construction budget. The one coming up Wednesday would provide a 2 percent increase to the Homeland Security Department.

On the surface, the situation increases the potential for a government shutdown — at an uncomfortably early stage in the process, fully four months before the deadline of when the new fiscal year begins.

Neither side sees that actually happening, though. Republicans view the president’s veto threat as toothless and hollow, and they assume he will end up acquiescing to much of what they’re after. Democrats view the GOP plan as unworkable and cynical, and they assume that even without having to use his veto pen, the president will end up doing as well as he has in past fiscal fights in the battle for public opinion.

Each side, in other words, is confident the other will blink first rather than risk blame in October for disruptions to government services much more widespread than this summer’s inflexible furloughs.

And each side has good reason to hold to its view. Both will have to be proved partly correct if a middle ground is to be eventually found on the grand total for discretionary spending — either as part of catchall legislation in September that wraps the dozen spending bills together and funds the entire government for all of the coming year, or (more likely) after a continuing resolution or two keep the situation in limbo until close to the holidays.

The era of appropriations dysfunction, which dates to 1995, is marked by a consistent theme: presidents since Bill Clinton using their single voice to make the clearer case for their priorities than the dissonant chorus of a fractured Congress. Democrats are banking on that pattern continuing.

But the Obama years have been marked by another pattern, one that Republicans are betting will work to their advantage once again. The president threatens the veto all the time — on every spending bill that came before the House last year, for example — but in his first term he’s only followed through and rejected two bills: a redundant CR and a measure promoting interstate recognition of notaries. (Of the last two-term presidents, George W. Bush vetoed a dozen bills, while Clinton rejected 37 and Ronald Reagan 78.)

Mainly, the reason for the Obama drop-off has been because a Senate under Democratic control has been available to throttle measures the president didn’t like before they ended up on his desk. But Obama hasn’t followed through on some of his vows — most recently in January, when he signed a defense authorization bill he’d threatened to veto over language curbing his terrorism detainee policy; and in March, when he signed the current stopgap spending law even though it perpetuated the sequester that, until then, he said he couldn’t abide.

That track record gives Republicans good reason to view this week’s threats as bluff and bluster, and to believe that in the end he will agree to deeper domestic cuts than he wants in return for a smooth end to the year. Perhaps it would result in an increase in the debt limit — even though, there again, Obama has threatened to veto any measure that conditions more federal borrowing on any such concession.

The House GOP’s track record, and its currently fractured-just-beneath-the-surface nature, gives the White House good reason to believe Obama can get the debt raised and his spending priorities mainly upheld without having to revive his veto feint.

But the two sides are impressively far apart, even with fully 17 weeks to go. The president wants to spend $91 billion, or 9 percent more than the GOP. Even in federal government math, that’s more money than mere rhetoric can obscure.

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