The 112th Congress and the Temple of Doom

People flocked to theatres in the 1940s to catch serials like the Perils of Pauline, Blazing the Overland Trail, Brenda Starr and Captain Marvel. The drama was unmatched as moviegoers always found their hero facing certain death each week in classical, cliffhanger fashion.

And then the hero would escape and return for another cliffhanger the next week.

These days, those cliffhanger serials seem to run on C-SPAN, with the 112th Congress narrowly averting disaster at every turn.

In March and April, the federal government came within a whisker of closing because Congress and President Obama waged an epic fight over spending priorities. The country nearly defaulted on its debt last month. And now in late September, lawmakers are like Indiana Jones, dashing out of the cave with a gigantic boulder bearing down on them.

The government starts a new fiscal year in a week-and-a-half. And there is again the chance for a government shutdown.

"There won't be a government shutdown," predicted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) sent things into a tizzy Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm not as certain as McConnell," cautioned Reid.

And with that, Washington again galloped toward the shutdown abyss at breakneck speed, with the typical disagreement over spending and "how to pay for things" driving a wedge between the two parties.

Here's the problem. This time....

The House and Senate have not sent any completed spending bills for the new fiscal year to President Obama's desk. The government's new fiscal year starts October 1. The government closes if Congress and the president fail to settle on a way to fund things.

So, House Republican leaders crafted a temporary spending bill, known as a "Continuing Resolution" (or CR, for short) to keep the government in business through November 18. $3.65 billion is included in the legislation to boost the cash-depleted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Natural disasters ranging from tornadoes in the south and midwest to wildfires in Texas and Hurricane Irene have taxed FEMA in recent months. Republicans believe their effort is a way to inject money into FEMA's system quickly and keep the government humming.

But there's a catch. House Republicans offset some of that FEMA money by raiding a Department of Energy account that provides loans for car companies to develop "green" vehicles.

Of course, the question of "offsets" to cover the costs of natural disasters conflagrated in August. Many on the left criticized House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to task for suggesting that lawmakers search for savings to balance the demand for emergency dollars.

"We will find the money if there is a need for additional monies," Cantor said during a FOX interview in late August. "Unfortunately the government continues to borrow money and to spend money it doesn't have."

Reid seized on Cantor's efforts to search for an offset.

"Rep. Cantor has suggested that we should hold up disaster relief to meet the tea party's demands" Reid said a few weeks ago.

So, offsets for disaster relief are in the bill that the House plans to debate and pass today to keep the government in business past September 30.

But there's a problem for Republicans: they can't just pass a bill to keep government operating on their own. They need help from Democrats.

With 242 Republicans in the House, the GOP can only lose 24 of their own before they need assistance from Democrats to lug a bill across the finish line.

In March, the House approved a three-week, stopgap spending bill. 54 Republicans abandoned their leadership then. In April, the House sidestepped yet another government shutdown. But the ranks of GOP defectors ballooned to 59. And in early August when the House okayed a bill to lift the debt ceiling, 66 Republicans broke ranks.

There's a reason why so many Republicans consistently desert their leadership. Many of these "no" votes emanate from conservative and tea party Republicans who don't think leadership is cutting enough spending. In addition, many of these same lawmakers abhor the fact that the GOP House voted to increase the debt ceiling.

And here's the kicker: a provision in the debt limit agreement approved in early August actually increased spending by $24 billion above the blueprint prepared by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).

That was the final straw for many conservative Republicans. There's no way they will vote for a stopgap bill to prevent a government shutdown that spends $24 billion above the Ryan budget.

This is why Republican vote counters fully anticipate mutiny rates akin to those other big votes earlier this year, if not higher. And this is precisely why they now need help from House Democrats more than ever.

"Democrats will be loath to support that effort," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) when asked about the FEMA offset.

"I find it very difficult to vote for a bill that has an offset," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), hinting it may be time for Republicans to go it alone.

"If the Speaker has the votes he doesn't have to worry about what we think," said Pelosi.

"Our guys are getting stirred up about this," confided one House Democratic source who asked not to be identified. "There's a real question about whether they have the votes or not."

Which brings us to Harry Reid. Even if the House approves the CR and sends it to the Senate, Reid is promising to strip out the offset provision and tack on his own nearly $7 billion disaster spending package.

Reid is emboldened by ten Republican senators who bolted from their party last week to vote with Democrats in favor of a stand alone $6.9 billion disaster bill.

"We're not going to cave in on this, because it's a matter of principle," Reid said.

But hooking the $6.9 billion disaster bill to the legislation to avert a government shutdown could be a poison pill for the House.

"If Reid does what he does, I don't see the votes on the (House) floor for it," said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). "If he wants to play politics with it, I think that is wrong and I think it is shame on him."

For Democrats and Republicans alike, there are few things more hazardous than tinkering with a government shutdown. In fact, it may only be trumped by monkeying around with federal emergency disaster assistance. It's risky for both parties to play such brinksmanship with a possible government shutdown and FEMA money swinging in the balance.

But to engage in brinksmanship, one must be at the brink. And even though it seems like they're at the brink, they're not. On the Congressional calendar, September 30 is practically an epoch away. In Congressional years, we're still in the Triassic Era. The weekend will be the Jurassic Era. It will only align with present day late next week, which is when both the House and Senate are scheduled to be on recess.

"If they want to stay into next week, that's fine, we can do that," said Reid.

Senior House GOP leadership aides say there's no formal discussion about holding lawmakers in Washington next week to prevent the government from shuttering.Of course, if this really does go to the brink, Democrats will argue Republicans are blocking disaster aid. Republicans will accuse Democrats of closing down the government.

"It will be on Leader Reid's shoulders," proffered Eric Cantor.

Regardless, it's only natural that this particular Congress again finds itself pinned against another hard deadline with so much at stake. It's the signature of this Congress as it careens between crisis after crisis, be it a government shutdown or raising the debt limit.

"I'm confident it will be resolved," said Mitch McConnell.

Could be. But that boulder is picking up steam and it doesn't look good. Will our heroes escape?

Just like with the serials, come back next week.