You've seen them roaming the streets in apocalyptic movies, screaming gibberish and wielding hand-painted signs that prophesize "The end is near."
The end may not be near. But on Capitol Hill, the endgame certainly is.
The term "endgame" is overused. "Endgame" has been used to describe the NCAA's Final Four, the antics of Snooki on Jersey Shore, the status of the debate over health care reform and more recently, President Obama's decision to militarily infuse the U.S. into the crisis in Libya.
But the true endgame in Washington is over spending and whether Congress and President Obama can cut a deal to avert a government shutdown at the end of next week. The government is now running on its sixth patchwork bill to pay for daily operations. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are signaling there's not only no appetite for another stopgap bill, but there probably aren't the votes to approve a new temporary package.
The endgame is near.
It is said that past is prologue. And what happened last week with the spending battle provides a window into what's ahead this week.
It all played out late last week. At the very, very end of last week. Just when most scribes and Congress-types were switching off their computers, loosening their ties and heading to Capitol Hill watering holes for some liquid cheer at the end of the day last Friday.
On Friday morning, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) appeared on MSNBC and suggested there was reason for optimism. Schumer said there was "some progress" toward an agreement, noting that chances for a bargain were "gaining momentum" and that he was "feeling better about it than (he) was."
But at 5:15 pm Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) dashed Schumer's buoyancy with what proved to be the first shot in a House GOP triangulated crossfire directed at the New York Democrat. Such a flurry of emails and press releases exploded onto the BlackBerries of Congressional journalists that they could barely take a sip of their Friday cocktails before another fusillade materialized in their in boxes.
Call it the Miller Time Buzzkill.
"Senator Schumer's comments this morning that the negotiations on a long-term solution to fund the government for the remainder of the year are going well are completely farfetched," scoffed Cantor in a statement. "(Senate Majority) Leader (Harry) Reid (D-NV), Senator Schumer and the White House continue to abandon their responsibility to get our fiscal house in order."
At 5:38 pm, the office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) joined the fray with an emailed statement.
"We still haven't seen anything resembling a serious proposal from the White House or Senate Democrats," said McCarthy
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) weighed in with his missive at 5:59 pm.
"If Democrats don't have a plan, do they intend to shut down the government because they can't agree among themselves?" asked Boehner in his release.
Schumer's office offered a rebuttal at 6:25 pm.
"After days of positive negotiations, with significant flexibility shown by the speaker, the House Republican leadership is back to agonizing over whether to give in to right-wing demands that they abandon any compromise on their extreme cuts," responded Schumer. "Instead of lashing out at Democrats in a kneejerk way, we hope House Republicans will finally stand up to the tea party and resume negotiations that had seemed so full of promise."
TGIF. I think.
The roots of this impasse run deep. Last fall, voters dispatched an unflinching corps of freshmen Republicans to Washington to slash spending. In early February, the House Republican brass produced an initial bill to run the government through fall and trim $32 billion in spending. But those cuts weren't deep enough for many freshman and lawmakers supported by tea party loyalists. So they implored the GOP braintrust to cut even deeper. The new figure ballooned to $61 billion. The House passed that bill in mid-February. But it had little chance making it through the Democratically-controlled Senate. The odds were even more scant that President Obama could sign it into law.
The Senate still hasn't approved anything. Which is why House Republicans are carpet-bombing Reid and Schumer. And if anyone thought there was a chance of approving another short-term measure, think again. Only six Republicans bolted from the GOP ranks and voted against an interim measure to avoid a shutdown a few weeks ago. But that figure billowed to 54 Republican "nay" votes on the latest makeshift bill.
So this is the endgame. And this is the classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
The stakes are perhaps highest for John Boehner. Boehner is now locked at the $61 billion level. Tea party supporters are watching closely to see if Boehner and the GOP deviates from that figure. Anything less could be interpreted as "caving" and could ignite a firestorm among tea party supporters. Freshmen who won their seats with tea party backing are under the microscope, too. Expect tea party faithful and other conservatives to promise primary challenges to Republicans who don't toe the line. And this is to say nothing of the political peril that Democrats could face for not backing the cuts conservatives are demanding.
Some Republicans are banking on the idea that the release of a budget blueprint for the NEXT fiscal year by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) could be the antidote to ease conservative unrest. Ryan's budget plan is expected to boast even deeper cuts and feature significant changes to entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republicans hope that Ryan's prototype satiates the demand for cuts, while simultaneously doing something concrete about the broader fiscal turmoil.
But the electorate is anxious. And some voters may not view cuts down the road as a substitute for cuts now. Especially when a potentially toxic vote looms to raise the debt limit later this spring.
"My patience has run out," said freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) when explaining why he won't support any more short-term spending bills. "And so has the patience of the people at home."
Plus, there is another factor at work here. This is the hockey fight phenomenon in politics. There are plenty of people who attend hockey matches because they enjoy the sport. But there are plenty of others who go just because they like to watch a good melee and see blood spilled on the ice.
The turbulent, confrontational town hall meetings of August, 2009 were the hockey fight of politics. And they served a harbinger of the 2010 midterm elections. The public forums with everyday people seizing microphones in VFW halls to castigate their Member of Congress made for compelling television. And like those who show up just for the hockey fights, there are certainly some Americans who are spoiling for a brawl between the Obama Administration and Congressional Republicans. Some constituents back home are rooting for a government shutdown and have made no bones about telling that to their lawmakers.
Which is why the endgame is near.
And in reality, the endgame may be closer than many think.
The government is scheduled to run out of money at 11:59:59 pm on Friday, April 8. On its face, that gives lawmakers a solid week-and-a-half to negotiate their way out of this cul-de-sac.
But that's a bit of a mirage.
Under Republican control, the House has a requirement to post all bills online for 72 hours before consideration. That alone shifts that deadline to next Tuesday. And by design, the House is the "hare" of Congress's two legislative bodies. The Senate is the "tortoise." In order to meet the April 8 deadline, the House could conceivably have to move even a little earlier than next Tuesday to allow the plodding Senate to act on any legislation.
Of course, that scenario is predicated on the hypothetical that the sides actually reach consensus.
Which is why the endgame is not only near. The endgame is in fact here.