Shutdown-Averting Endgame Buys All Sides a Second Play

Posted September 18, 2013 at 6:12pm

Consider the notion that a deal is already baked and that sometime next week Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will unspool a maneuver that not only averts a partial government shutdown but also saves Speaker John A. Boehner’s bacon.

The latest installment of fiscal brinkmanship is careening toward its climax. The intricate parliamentary moves being contemplated will strike some as unworthy of a great democracy. They will reaffirm for others a part of what makes our democracy so great — or at least so fascinating. Either way, the machinations are a reminder that mastering process is an indispensable part of making policy and an essential ingredient for political success.

If it works out according to the complex and still-evolving design, the American people will be spared the frustrations of shuttered passport offices, barricaded national parks, delayed Medicare reimbursements and padlocked Social Security service centers starting in a dozen days. And all of the Beltway players in the melodrama can claim some victory.

The majority House Republicans might realize their long-sought goal of compelling senators to go on the record for or against retaining Obamacare. Their speaker would retain his tenuous hold on power because he allowed himself to be led by his rebellious flock and they all survived to fight another day.

The mainstream of the Senate Democratic majority can come to Barack Obama’s rescue, while a few politically vulnerable among them would get to spurn the president without substantively weakening him.

And Obama could declare that he drove the outcome because he steadfastly refused to yield to the demands of the fiscal hostage-takers.

The biggest downside: Even under this best-case scenario, the budget impasse would only be bridged for a few weeks. Spending would continue uninterrupted until the middle of December, but there would be no accord on what to do in the intervening weeks, when the Treasury runs out of accounting options and has to borrow money to cover the government’s debts.

Increasingly, it looks as though the debt limit debate is where the most confrontational Republicans want to make their last stand against the health care law, at least for this year. They are somehow convinced they can reverse the patterns of public opinion and make Obama buckle under the perception that he’d be risking a government default to preserve his biggest legislative achievement.

At the same time, the body language at the Capitol suggests the House GOP rank and file is prepared to give up on the shutdown shenanigans with only one more round of fuss, and that both Senate leaders are ready to help that happen. It could work like this:

On Friday, all Republicans and a handful of conservative Democrats pass the legislation unveiled Wednesday that would keep spending going at post-sequester levels ($986 billion at an annual rate) until Dec. 15, while explicitly forbidding any money to be spent to implement the health care law.

When the Senate comes back next week, Reid takes up the House bill in one of two ways, each of which would have McConnell’s acquiescence.

Option 1 would be to start with a straightforward vote on clearing the legislation. It would certainly fail, but it would nonetheless afford the “defund Obamacare” senators their moment to have their disdain recorded.

Once that happens, demonstrating empirically to House Republicans that their goal can’t be attained, Reid exercises his leader’s prerogative to reconsider the vote, boxes out any competing alternatives by “filling the amendment tree,” as it’s called. He then pushes toward a vote on a straightforward 10-week continuing resolution.

Reid would need McConnell’s assurances that a half-dozen GOP senators would help break an inevitable filibuster by frustrated conservatives. That could happen because, in return, Republicans would be able to step aside and watch Senate Democrats provide all the votes needed to keep the shrunken discretionary levels in place a while longer.

That’s one way it could play out. Option 2 would be for Reid to arrange a cloture-breaking ballot on the CR at the outset, with that serving as the symbolic vote about Obamacare’s future. Under this scenario, the 60 votes to overcome the filibuster would come mainly from Republicans, who’d be voting “yes” as a way to show support for defunding.

Reid would then have to find a way to kill the anti-health-care-law language later in the process, preferably with as few as 51 votes. He might be able to do this with a straightforward amendment to delete the provision or a vote to sustain a point of order that the policy language is improperly catching a ride on a spending bill.

Under either option, a “clean” CR would then go back to the House, probably the weekend before Monday, Sept. 30, the final day of fiscal 2013. The bipartisan leadership bet is the bill would clear in the nick of time.

For that to happen, it would need support from a decent number of Democrats, who would view sustaining those low-spending levels they hate as being in Obama’s best short-term interest. But their votes won’t be enough.

That means the deal of the week would also require backing from most of the conservative GOP warriors, who would have to be won over with the promise that they’ll be allowed back on the Obamacare battlements soon enough.