On Friday afternoon, a scrum of reporters clamored around freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI) in the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor. The scribes peppered Huizenga with questions about the impasse between Republicans and Democrats over spending and the possibility of a government shutdown.
Maverick Republicans like Huizenga came to Washington last fall with a clear message: shave spending. And those who rode the tea party wave to Washington know they could find themselves in the same, unenviable position as the Democrats they toppled if they don't make good on their electoral mandate.
For a few moments, Huizenga stuck to the traditional GOP talking points. He called out the Senate for inaction and criticized the $33 billion in cuts proposed by the Obama Administration.
And then Huizenga offered this gem:
"You have to figure out how you go win the war," Huizenga said. "Not every skirmish is the war."
Republicans and Democrats are prosecuting a full-scale fiscal war right now over their political priorities. Much of this fracas centers around how much the government should spend and what programs deserve money.
Huizenga is right. Not every skirmish is the war. The hand-to-hand fiscal combat is but a mere skirmish in a multi-theatre conflict that will last throughout the year and could very well culminate in next year's presidential election.
In short, this week's scrap over averting a government shutdown April 9 is just one campaign in a battle royale that could tilt the political axis for years to come.
On June 4, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered what became known as his "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech to parliament. The remarks were significant because Churchill spelled out a broad universe of locales where the British would fight, thus revealing his commitment to victory.
"We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air," Churchill proffered. "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills..."As Churchill said, this fight over government spending has many fronts, too. And Congressional Democrats and Republicans are indeed duking it out on every fiscal beach, landing ground, field and street.
This week's skirmish over a government shutdown is just one of those battlefields. So here's a look at the four, major theatres where Republicans and Democrats are locked in a pitched battle that threatens to shutter the government and could force the U.S. to default on its financial obligations.
Theatre #1: The "CR" and the Government Shutdown
In the past few weeks, numerous news organizations have described the government shutdown hostilities as a duel over the "budget."
"The House votes today on a two-week, stopgap budget for the federal government," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 1.
"House OK's 3-week budget extension bill," declared the Los Angeles Times on March 16.
"Senate Approves Stopgap Budget," said the New York Times on March 17.
That's not true at all.
A battle over the ‘budget" will in fact be one of the war theatres this year. But for now, lawmakers are tussling over what's called a "CR." A CR is Congress-speak for a Continuing Resolution, a bill that keeps the government afloat.
Each year, the House, Senate and president must approve 12 appropriations bills which fund the federal government. "Appropriations" measures are the spending bills which run the federal government. The entire federal funding pie is sliced into 12 areas. Those areas range from "Defense" to "Homeland Security" to "State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs."
In the House, each one of those areas constitutes the jurisdiction of an appropriations subcommittee. The subcommittee sets how much money the government will spend in its given area and presents a bill to the House. The same thing happens in the Senate. Eventually, the House and Senate have to get into synch with one another in all 12 areas and the president must sign each bill into law. Otherwise, that portion of the federal government finds itself without money and can't operate.
Last year, the House, Senate and President Obama failed to complete ANY of the annual spending bills. So near the end of the fiscal year (before September 30), all sides agreed to the first of several "CR's" which would keep the government open for business at existing funding levels.
Over the past six weeks, the House passed a major CR which would fund the government until September 30 this year (the end of Fiscal Year 2011). The legislation also struck $61 billion in spending. The Senate has been unable to okay the same legislation. So the House, Senate and president have signed off on a series of short-term CR's to keep the government's lights on. Since the start of the year, each of these measures has trimmed a few billion dollars.
The latest CR expires this coming Friday at 11:59:59 pm. The sides are at loggerheads and can't seem to forge an agreement. If they fail to strike a deal by Friday night (or approve yet another CR), the government will close.
Here's what Bill Huizenga is talking about when he says "not every skirmish is the war."
This is indeed a heated skirmish with profound consequences for both sides. But it is not the whole war.
Theatre #2: The FY '12 Budget
On Tuesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) will unveil his spending blueprint for FY '12 and beyond. During an appearance on FOX News Sunday, Ryan promised to slash more than $4 trillion in spending in the coming years. Plus, Ryan aims to make significant changes to Medicare.
"The biggest driver of our debt is Medicare," said Ryan. "It has trillions, tens of trillions of unpaid promises."
Again, this is Huizenga's "war" versus "skirmish" thesis. A lot of Republicans who are antsy to get a deal on the CR believe that GOP leaders could use Ryan's budget as a wedge to coax votes out of reluctant lawmakers who are too fixated on this year's spending rhubarb. In other words, why fret over billions when you can soon axe trillions?
Ryan plans to "mark up" or finalize his budget later this week. The full House plans to approve Ryan's budget later this spring
But Congressional budgets are not binding. They just give broad spending targets for various Congressional committees to work off of.
Expect Democrats to have a field day, rifling through Ryan's budget.
"We're going to see deep cuts in education for kids, cuts in health care for seniors and the disabled," warned Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Budget panel.
In essence, Democrats are picking a fight with the GOP. They are determined to portray GOP cuts as Draconian.
For his part, Ryan knows his budget is bold. And he expects Democrats to carpet-bomb his proposal.
"We are giving them a political weapon to go against us," Ryan conceded. "We will be giving our political adversaries something to use against us in the next election. And shame on them if they do that."
Theatre #3: FY'12 Appropriations
Even as lawmakers are locked in dogfights over the CR and the budget, yet another front is about to open up in this fiscal war: spending for Fiscal Year '12. The next fiscal year kicks in October 1. The House and Senate are supposed to approve all 12 of the annual spending bills that run the government next year by fall. If not, the government faces AN ADDITIONAL PATHWAY where the government could shut down.
For weeks now, the various appropriations subcommittees have entertained spending requests from cabinet officials and agency heads. They range from high-ranking figures like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and FBI Director Robert Mueller to more obscure figures like Joseph Szabo of the Federal Railroad Administration. Each official comes to Capitol Hill to make their dollar requests for the year and faces questions from skeptical lawmakers about why they should allocate so much money for a given program.
Even as appropriators continue to tangle with last year's spending bills, they are forging ahead on next year's. This front in the fiscal war has garnered the least attention so far. But wait until summer and fall. Especially if the current melee over the CR spurs a government shutdown.
Theatre #4: Raising the Debt Limit
The fight over raising the debt limit (or debt ceiling) could prove to be a struggle of epic proportions. This could be the defining clash, with some of the most fierce strife emanating from INSIDE the Republican party.
Think of the debt ceiling as a credit card threshold. For the U.S., the debt ceiling is the statutory total dollar figure that the country is allowed to carry at any one time.
In February, 2010, Congress voted to hike the nation's borrowing limit to $14.294 trillion. That is an astronomical figure, particularly when Congress raised the debt ceiling to $8.965 trillion in 2005. Lawmakers voted to increase the debt ceiling to a "paltry" 6.4 trillion in 2002.
The U.S. is dangerously close to maxing out the credit card again, perhaps in May or June. That requires a vote to increase the debt limit. If Congress fails to do that, the U.S. could default on its debts, sending world financial markets into a tailspin.
Think of the conflict over increasing the debt ceiling as Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, and the Battle of the Bulge, with a touch of Hamburger Hill and the Battle of Yavin in Star Wars rolled into one.
For starters, voters dispatched dozens of freshmen Republicans to Washington who excoriated their opponents for voting to raise the debt ceiling. Plus, many of these members are loathe to vote for more debt since reducing spending is the quintessence of their agenda.
Now those same candidates are Members of Congress. And no one quite knows what happens if Congress fails to adjust the debt ceiling.
It's thought that the Republican leadership may have to link a vote to increase the debt ceiling to an effort to slash spending. Regardless, finding the votes for such an onerous exercise will be a chore for the GOP.
It's unclear how Republicans might engineer this vote on the floor when the debt ceiling increase comes due. Last fall, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters he "would advocate a direct up or down vote" on the debt ceiling. Cantor noted that the House has historically had to fuse such a politically virulent vote to another more popular issue to assure passage.
The debt ceiling vote could be the decisive battle in this spending war. It could certainly produce the most political carnage.
So there you have it: four major fights on four major fronts. Fights on the beaches. Fights on the landing grounds. Fights in the fields and in the streets.
"Not every skirmish is the war," said Bill Huizenga. But they are battles in a fully-joined conflict over controlling government spending. It's a war that won't end this week, even if the sides figure out a way avoid a government shutdown.