The right's new dirty trick to hold government hostage

The scheme to defund Obamacare isn't the real end game. What GOP really wants is billions more in spending cuts

Published September 10, 2013 2:18PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor                                                                                     (AP/Alex Brandon)
Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor (AP/Alex Brandon)

Without Congressional action, the government will shutdown in 20 days -- or two working weeks on Capitol Hill -- and yet Republicans in the House are lurching right, in a desperate attempt to wring some concession out of Democrats for the simple act of keeping the government open.

But while everyone's focusing on the means by which House GOP leaders try to unite their fractured conference, it's possible that Speaker John Boehner, et al, will sneak something genuinely meaningful by House and Senate Democrats, either by catching them unawares or exploiting their weariness of another government shutdown fight.

All of the attention right now is on the GOP's quixotic quest to defund the health care law. And it looks like Republican leaders will make a symbolic feint in that direction, by allowing their members to gut the ACA in the spending bill, but drafting in such a way that the Senate can easily delink the two items and toss the Tea Party measure into the trash chute.

But don't let that distract you. The real fight is more likely to be over how this temporary measure will apportion funds between defense and non defense programs, and more importantly over whether we ever get out from under sequestration spending levels, which are already starving important investments and programs across the government.

It gets a little technical, but it's actually a critical test of whether Democrats will hold the line in the fight over sequestration, and hold Republicans to their end of the debt limit deal they struck in 2011.

First, a key caveat. We don't know exactly what John Boehner's going to do yet. We'll find out later today when the GOP unveils the draft of its so-called "continuing resolution."

The real question is whether that continuing resolution will simply and cleanly extend the government's current spending regime for another couple months, or reflect a backdoor effort by House GOP leaders to make sequestration spending levels permanent.

Currently, the government's operating on appropriations that closely adhere to the 2011 debt limit deal. In fiscal year 2013, Congress approved $1.043 trillion in discretionary spending -- $552 billion for defense, $491 billion for non-defense. Because Congress never enacted further budget consolidation in 2011, those spending totals have been cut down across the board by sequestration to an annualized level of $988 billion.

The new fiscal year starts on October 1. To adhere to the debt limit deal, Congress would pass a CR appropriating $1.058 trillion -- $552 billion for defense, $506 billion for non defense. Then, sequestration would automatically reduce that to an annualized rate of $967 billion.

The advantage off writing the CR this way is that if at any point Congress manages to agree on a plan to replace sequestration, discretionary spending will automatically increase to the levels agreed up on in 2011.

But GOP leaders keep hinting at writing the CR to reflect a maximum appropriation of $988 billion -- the same amount the government is spending under sequestration right now.

Sequestration will automatically cut that down to $967 billion over the course of a year. But what that means is if Congress manages to cobble together an agreeable bipartisan budget in the next few months (unlikely, I know) discretionary spending will only increase to $988 billion -- not the $1.058 trillion the parties agreed to two years ago. Republicans will pocket the $60 billion difference for fiscal year 2014 and have successfully reduced the agreed-upon spending baseline, making it much more difficult for Congress to restore funding to starved programs across the government.

And what about that $21 billion? The difference between sequestration level spending and the House GOP's proposed top line of $988 billion? If Congress agrees on a budget that turns of sequestration, all of that money would go to defense spending programs. Congress would be endorsing, if only for a couple months, special treatment for national security, and permanent sequestration-level spending for domestic programs.

Fortunately, House Democrats have gotten wise to this problem.

“There’s no negotiating over the principle of parity,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md told the Washington Post recently. “If Republicans want to relieve the $20 billion cut to defense, we must increase non-defense spending by $20 billion. You can’t boost defense at the expense of other investments. That’s got to be a very clear principle.”

Obamacare's largely a distraction here. But the fear, according to Michael Linden, fiscal policy expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, is that if Boehner manages to pass his spending bill in the House, weary Senate Democrats will strip the Obamacare defunding piece from it, and decline the fight over spending levels.

"They wouldn't accept 988 [billion] for the year-long. Why would they accept anything in the short run that they wouldn't accept in the yearlong?" he told me. "They might be willing to fight to prevent future cuts. They would find it tough to move from the lower levels they just endorsed."

It's such a technical-seeming issue, though -- CAP wrote a whole issue brief about it! -- and if the entire press corps is describing the House measure as a "clean" CR, then Senate Democrats will appear to be picking a government shutdown fight.

But that won't be the real story. The real story will be Republicans will be violating the terms of the debt limit deal.

There are many uncertainties built into this GOP plan. First, we need to see what the House GOP's CR actually says. Maybe Boehner's just bluffing to quiet his own members. But if it's written as described above, Boehner will have to pass it in the House, probably without much if any Democratic help. If he fails, then Nancy Pelosi will dictate the terms of the appropriations process and the whole problem will go away. But if it passes, then the onus for setting things right will fall to Senate Democrats, many of whom face tough elections next year, and would prefer not to align with Harry Reid in a government shutdown fight. If Senate Democrats hold the line, then they'd have to stare down House Republicans, and convince the press corps that Republicans were trying to pull a fast one.

On that score, some encouraging news. Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson tells me the Democratic demand is "clean CR, no funny business."

But if Democrats blink, then President Obama would have to decide whether upholding the debt limit deal, and the principle behind sequestration, in a three month spending bill, is worth the consequences of a government shutdown. If he decides it's not, and signs, it'll become very hard for Democrats to get the government funded at realistic levels at any time this decade, without regaining complete control of Congress.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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