The Future Spending Fights

Here we go again.

The House of Representatives is scheduled today to debate and vote on a bill to keep the government open.

If recent history is to be a guide, it would barely seem like a normal day on Capitol Hill if either the House or Senate wasn't considering some legislation just to keep the government running.

It's the House's turn today. The House is up because last Thursday, with only three members present, it only approved a short-term, stopgap bill to keep the government running over the weekend. The House had to do that because last Monday, the Senate approved two government funding measures. One would run the government through November 18th. The other would keep the government open until tonight at 11:59 pm.

With most members away last week, the House's skeleton crew okayed the short measure (known as a "bridge") Thursday morning to duck a weekend closure. Then, in order to sync up the House with the Senate, House members will vote today on running the government through November 18th.

Regardless, this is a case study in how Congress has toiled just to do the basics all year long. And moreover, these difficulties speak volumes about what Congress faces in the next month as it tries to fund the government to a calendar point that hits just before the pivotal 2012 elections.

Why are all of these machinations necessary?

For starters, look to September 21. That's the day the House unexpectedly defeated a plan to run the government until November 18. The vote was 230 to 195 with only six Democrats voting yes. In addition, Republicans lost 48 of their own members.

It's a good thing the government was funded through September 30 or Washington would have faced a crisis.

There's a complex slate of reasons for this particular defeat. Republicans insisted that Congress offset an infusion of money to the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A series of major natural disasters already bled FEMA's coffers dry. So House GOPers decided to "pay" for some of the FEMA money by stripping funds from a Department of Energy program designed to bolster the development of alternative-fuel vehicles. This decision had two impacts. First, it failed to successfully court enough conservatives who are dedicated to watching the bottom line. In addition, the offsets decision alienated Democrats who had been key players on previous bills to fund the government earlier this year. In fact, Republicans previously lost 53 and 59 of their own on other bills to avert potential shutdowns earlier this year. The 48 GOP defections on the September 21st vote represented a low water mark when it came to a lack of party discipline. Still, Republicans felt burned that few Democrats helped pull the measure across the finish line. 81 Democrats voted yea on the package to avert a government shutdown in April. 85 Democrats voted in favor of another bill sidestepping a government shutdown in March. Democrats offered nowhere near those numbers for this round.

But Republicans have suffered revolts in their ranks for months now, driven mostly by conservatives and lawmakers aligned with the tea party movement. Until the September 21st failed vote, this dissonance wasn't enough to torpedo the spending measures which fund basic government operations. But philosophical disagreements between Democrats and Republicans are what brought Washington to the precipice of a shutdown in April. And with the elections creeping closer, expect the wide divides now to grow into chasms later this fall.

Democrats proved their resolve on September 21st by voting against the spending package, forcing Republicans to "sweeten" the deal a few days later to conjure up the votes on their own. In addition, it's possible an even more-mutinous House Republican Conference could buck the leadership as they insist on deeper cuts for the next round. After all, many GOPers are already infuriated that in order to secure the debt ceiling agreement in early August, lawmakers had to ditch the so-called "Ryan Budget" framework which introduced significant cuts. As a result, the debt ceiling pact called for an additional $24 billion in spending above the blueprint crafted by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). Expect many Republicans to try to force the GOP to return to that level for the current fiscal year, if not go even deeper.

So Democrats and Republicans are flexing their muscles. And that could create problems as the sides creep toward November 18.

Here's one of the problems: many in the tea party no longer idolize House Republican freshmen. In fact, the very title these freshmen now hold is malignant to many in the tea party movement. They're now incumbents. That's why the very hostility which ushered many freshmen to power in 2010 could be exactly the same force which sweeps some of them out next year. Many will face primary challengers who don't believe they've cut enough. Some voters will hold them accountable for hiking the debt ceiling. Regardless, many of these freshmen feel the heat from their right flank and will be loathe to vote for anything that doesn't satisfy the conservative appetite.

So how do they keep the government operating?

One option would be for Republicans to cobble together a series of "Continuing Resolutions," better known on Capitol Hill as "CR's." These are provisional spending bills which keep the government in operation to a particular date at the previous spending levels or lower. When asked whether or not he thought Congress would have to okay any more makeshift packages to avoid a shutdown, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) responded "I certainly hope not."

"CR's" can distract Congress from working on other things. After all, until lawmakers tackle a package of three major trade agreements next week, efforts to fund the government and raise the debt limit have consumed nearly every cubic centimeter of Congressional oxygen this year.

Instead, House and Senate leaders are leaning toward tailoring a broader spending bill, known as an "omnibus" package. It would run the government from November 18 through September 30, 2012. That's when Washington begins Fiscal Year 2013, just about five weeks before the presidential and Congressional elections. The challenge here is marshaling enough votes from both sides of the aisle in the House. If the bill tips in favor of conservatives, Democrats are likely to withhold their ballots like they did on September 21. If it doesn't cut deeply enough or strip funding from hallmark, controversial programs like Planned Parenthood or public broadcasting, conservatives may balk.

"We are trying to fashion a package that will reflect sort of our commitment to the limited government that we believe in," said Cantor.

Regardless, if House Republicans elect the omnibus route, critics could find fault with this approach.

A little more than a year ago, Republicans unveiled their "Pledge to America," a menu of legislative and parliamentary proposals that the House GOP promised to pursue if voters rewarded them with the majority. One plank in the pledge is titled Advance Legislative Issues One at a Time.

"We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with ‘must-pass' legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead, we will advance major legislation one issue at a time," the pledge reads.

Congress is supposed to pass 12 annual spending bills to run the federal government. Certainly it could be argued that heaping all 12 together into one legislative folio runs afoul of the pledge. But Republicans counter they may have no choice. The Democratically-controlled Senate has lagged behind the House in approving the spending bills. So, the House GOP argues that combining everything was the only option.

So the House is expected to vote today to keep the government open for another six weeks. Eric Cantor wouldn't assure reporters on Monday it was a done deal. But he remained optimistic.

"I'm looking forward to hopefully having a successful vote on that," Cantor said. "Hopefully we can avoid any kind of shutdown talk this time."

But next time could be the real challenge.