CR Blues: Constant Brinkmanship Brings Fatigue

Posted September 28, 2013 at 6:00am

If you thought this week was bad, get used to it. The dysfunction in Congress is likely to make Capitol Hill life miserable for at least the next two months — if it doesn’t consume yet another holiday season.

The most Congress seems able to manage lately is to keep the lights on for a little longer so they can keep arguing over the budget and Obamacare — and even that has been in jeopardy. And members are starting to feel fatigued by the constant brinkmanship.

“It’s not just frustrating, it’s maddening,” said Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat who has long pushed for a grand bargain on the debt.

“I’ve started chopping wood just to relieve the frustration,” he said.

But for Cooper and other lawmakers, the dance over the debt ceiling has barely begun, with a 17-day sprint until what Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew warns would be the nation’s first default on its obligations in history if one side doesn’t blink.

Even if that hurdle is cleared, Congress will have to find a way to fund the budget for the rest of the year.

The pressure has been intense with the band of conservative Republicans demanding a defunding of the health care law clashing with party leadership’s fears of a politically disastrous shutdown to follow.

This week’s marathon speech by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, demanding the defunding of Obamacare and calling out his fellow Republicans helped generate thousands of phone calls to GOP offices — some of which, lawmakers said, were abusive, brought staffers to tears and generated behind-the-scenes confrontations inside the GOP.

Capitol Hill staffers have been watching the debate intently, with their own health insurance benefits at stake as well.

And much of Washington has been wondering whether they will be told to go to work in the event of a shutdown and when they will get paid if they do.

Shutdown clocks have become part of the political theater. Debt limit clocks are next.

Democrats have largely been playing defense — trying to preserve Obamacare. Republicans have been on offense, but without much to show for it this year.

The result has been a stalemate that has been frustrating for lawmakers in both parties. The sequester hasn’t been replaced two years after it was intended to bring Congress together on a deal. The health care law remains largely intact. And a host of assorted other issues — from immigration to energy to a farm bill extension — are struggling to get across the finish line.

While Democrats readily expressed their irritation, Republicans are generally more sanguine. Their efforts to defund, delay and dismantle Obamacare are about listening to their constituents, they say.

“Obviously this is divided government. Divided government can be challenging,” said Rep. Sean P. Duffy, R-Wis.

Duffy wasn’t about to complain about the long hours, however. “This is our job,” he said of the weekend sessions. “This is where we need to be. … We’re here to do what we can” to roll back the health care law while keeping the government open, he said.

And even if they haven’t succeeded in getting the president to agree to repeal his health care law, “I think it’s sinking in with the American people,” Duffy said of the party’s message.

But Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he has a weary sense of déjà vu.

“It seems to me in the three years that I’ve been here, it feels an awful lot like ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said on the floor this week. “I was sitting in that chair presiding over this body as we were closing in on a government shutdown when I had only been here a few months.”

But some believe this go-round seems worse than before. At least in 2011, the party’s leaders were talking to each other and the White House.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he’s been stunned by the lack of bipartisan budget talks this time around.

“The thing that’s astonishing, when you look at what’s going on right now, is that there is no active negotiation by the Republican House with the Democratic president or the Democrats in Congress,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. … It’s all an internal struggle on the House Republican side.”

Budget talks earlier this year between the White House and Senate Republicans eventually fell apart, and there isn’t much in the way of real discussions on anything approaching a budget deal at this point.

But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who had his own epic tussle on the floor with Cruz over the defunding strategy, said some things are getting done, using the “Groundhog Day” analogy himself in a CNBC interview.

“It seems like we’re always on the verge of a shutdown,” he said. “On the other hand, what you’ve seen come out of this is some permanent tax policy for individuals. You’ve also seen, for the first time, two years in a row, we’ve had reduced spending.”

Corker held out hope that a deal might be reached later this year on changes to entitlement to replace some of the sequester.

“So, this is ugly to watch, and sometimes painful to participate in, but, you know, we’re clunking along. And, hopefully, over time, doing some of those things that will make our country much stronger,” he said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., put the long hours in perspective.

“I’ve got a son in the Navy and he’s deployed and he hasn’t been home in I think about 10 weekends,” McCain said. “So, there’s a lot of people that are working a lot harder than we see.”

Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.