The leaves are turning. Tailgate parties and gridiron are dominating college campuses. Baseball playoffs are around the corner. About the last thing anyone wants to disrupt this early fall is another bruising game of chicken over the federal budget. And yet, something is slowly pulling Congress is slowly being pulled toward another government shutdown, over an issue which doesn't even represent half a percent of the discretionary federal budget.
On Thursday night, the House of Representatives finally passed a short term spending bill to keep government funded through November 18, and to provide $3.65 billion in disaster relief aid. Aside from cuts in a Department of Energy auto program, House leaders included another $100 million of cuts to the troubled federal program which gave an infamous loan to the now-defunct solar company Solyandra, as a way to court rebellious House conservatives. The Senate swiftly tabled the bill by a 59-36 vote, effectively killing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled a 5:30 vote on Monday on a modified plan which would fund the government and provide disaster funds. While Democrats claim it's a compromise because the new funding bill gives less in disaster aid than they originally wanted, the key sticking point--whether it should be offset in some way or not--is unresolved, and both sides have dug their heels in on their position.
With a sighing attitude of "here we go again," lawmakers are repeating the process from the April government shutdown and the summer debt ceiling fight. They're holding press conferences to angrily point the finger at the other party. Both sides decry the travesty that victims of Hurricane Irene might have to wait for aid. The language is similar to what they said over the summer, but a bit more subdued. "Harry Reid is arguing with himself," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at a morning press conference. "This is why people don't like Washington." Democrats blamed the GOP for playing a political game. "To put a political agenda on [hurricane victims'] backs is unfair and wrong," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said.
Who's to blame this time? In the past two fights, it was clear that Republicans were the ones forcing the issue, whatever the merits of their case. This time around, Democrats arguably share some of the blame. It was Republicans who initially demanded that disaster relief be offset with spending cuts elsewhere, a position which was immediately controversial. But as recently as last week, Democrats such as House Appropriations Ranking Member Norman Dicks reluctantly agreed to the cuts which the GOP proposed as an offset. The Democratic leadership's abrupt decision to oppose that bill set off this round of brinkmanship. Now, the issue of whether $3.65 billion in disaster relief--about 0.35 percent of the $1.043 trillion the government is set to spend in its discretionary budget next year--is an ideological issue which neither party can afford to back down from, without some type of face-saving compromise.
There are still a few days to solve this. Full government funding won't run out until October 1. Funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency will run out sometime sooner, although the parties aren't quite sure when, either next Wednesday according to the Democrats, or this coming Sunday according to the GOP. Reid urged the parties to take the weekend to "cool off" and come to an agreement, although he strongly rules out any proposal which would seek to offset the disaster funding. Both chambers were supposed to be in recess next week, but Reid indicated the Senate will stay in session, and the House may follow.
Whether they want to or not, the parties appear set to lock heads throughout this fall. At least we have football.