A horde of reporters pursued Rep. Adam Kinzinger down a basement corridor of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday night. The Illinois lawmaker had just emerged from a rare, evening, closed-door confab of the House Republican Conference on government funding and efforts to slash money for Planned Parenthood.
The scribes hoped to learn from Kinzinger what approach Republican leaders would select to avoid a political calamity when the federal government’s operating authority expires October 1.
“There is no plan,” Kinzinger declared.
Which is kind of right because, well, no one in the Republican leadership ranks has officially endorsed a plan and probably won’t for a while, even though everyone technically knows what the plan is.
GOP leaders didn’t announce a plan in that twilight assemblage because they’re still listening to members and letting them have their say. Allowing them to voice their views and ponder consequences of perusing one legislative avenue or the other. Nobody wants to get too far out in front and commit to a plan until they absolutely have to.
That’s because the plan will be the plan -- until it isn’t the plan.
Take a look at how House Republicans championed a seven-week-old “etched-in-stone” strategy on the Iran nuclear agreement -- only to hastily backpedal just moments from initiating a procedural debate on the floor last week.
Or consider the multiple and sundry tactics GOP leaders laid out in September, 2013 to keep the government funded or deal with the debt ceiling in 2011 -- only to dash them at the last second because of a lack of political support from rank-and-file Republicans.
In the GOP’s defense, some of that is just the bi-product of trying operate Congress and advance sticky legislative issues. But is there any reason to expect why this might go any differently on funding the government? Especially with an unprecedented level of internal volatility rattling the Republican ranks?
On Friday afternoon, North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, the GOP’s chief deputy whip, hustled into the House chamber for a vote series to defund Planned Parenthood for a year and impose prison time on physicians who don’t assist babies who survive amid failed abortions.
Paul Kane of The Washington Post asked McHenry: “When will we get to see the plan?” McHenry paused and just nodded.
“I can’t quote a nod,” Kane protested.
But there is a plan for the time being. Maybe McHenry’s nod was telling because at this stage, it’s all done with a wink and a nod.
House Republican leaders called those two votes for Friday to isolate the Planned Parenthood issue from an interim spending bill they hope to advance in the next week-and-a-half.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is teeing up a procedural vote on a bill next week that asserts that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. Then the Pope visits Capitol Hill to deliver an historic address to a Joint Meeting of Congress. By then, there’s only a few of days left to fund the government.
Republicans are expected to then push what’s called a “Continuing Resolution” or “CR” in Congress-ese. A CR is a stopgap spending bill to fund the government for a temporary period -- perhaps until mid-December. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., says the CR is ready to go except an end-date. But Rogers and other Republican leaders are trying to convince their members they can’t completely slash Planned Parenthood money in a CR or any other appropriations bill.
“Only about ten percent of what (Planned Parenthood gets) comes from appropriated monies,” Rogers said. “The balance of some $550 million is in an entitlement.”
Entitlements are federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Planned Parenthood receives the bulk of its funding through those payments.
That’s why Republican leaders might angle to kill the rest of the Planned Parenthood funding through a measure later this year known as a “budget reconciliation” package. “Reconciliation” is a special budgetary process that sidesteps potential Senate filibusters and requires only a simple majority, not a supermajority, to pass.
In other words, if the GOP can convince its members to go the reconciliation route, it can at least pass a bill later that would do more to defund Planned Parenthood than an appropriations bill.
Such a measure would undoubtedly trigger a veto threat from President Obama. But this gambit removes the melee from the effort to fund the government and takes a more direct legislative route toward the Planned Parenthood funding.
“We are not going to engage in exercises in futility,” said McConnell of efforts to cut Planned Parenthood money via a CR, potentially prompting a government shutdown.
Republicans are walking a fine line here. Few Republicans support Planned Parenthood. Most oppose abortion. But Planned Parenthood scores wide overall support from the public at large for the health services it provides, particularly among female voters. Stumbling into a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood is a political loser for the GOP.
“If you don't know what to do, distract them with women's health care,” posited Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat.
Politically, it may help Republican leaders to abstain from announcing the definitive approach. Put it out now and conservative talk radio would rip it to shreds. That would also amp up a simmering movement among some conservatives to try to topple House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
This interregnum serves as a political steam release. It allows those who want to lay into Boehner to have their say. It also presses Congress right up against the October 1 deadline. With the Pope coming next week, the House is scheduled to conduct virtually no legislative business until Friday. The Senate has a procedural vote Tuesday. That punts any action on government funding until the week after next -- right at the deadline.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, voted “present” Friday in the House on a bill to suspend funding for Planned Parenthood. King argued that he voted that way instead of voting “aye” because he thinks the bill didn’t truly defund Planned Parenthood. And King’s skeptical of pushing off the entire government funding debate until the following week.
“Boehner has known the Pope is coming to town for a long time,” he said. “If it’s not a tactic to bring in the Pope in the third week of September with the deck stacked to get it all done by the fourth week of September, then it’s a huge overlook.”
With the calendar pressures, is McConnell losing sleep over the approaching deadline?
“No, I’m not,” he replied emphatically. “We’re going to fund the government. Hopefully into late fall.”
But how is McConnell so confident a shutdown isn’t looming?
“I just am,” he intoned.
The majority leader’s Alfred E. Neuman “What? Me worry?” stance didn’t impress White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“We’ve been seeking to find a way to get Republicans in Congress to accept an invitation from Democrats for months to engage in bipartisan talks on the budget,” Earnest said. “Republicans put it off for so long that it’s difficult to imagine a bipartisan budget agreement before the deadline.”
Rogers knows it’s a bear of a public relations campaign to explain to the public why Congress simply can’t defund Planned Parenthood via an appropriations bill and could use reconciliation to get at it from the entitlement side of the ledger, sometimes referred to as “mandatory” spending.
“Most people don’t have any understanding between appropriated spending and mandatory spending,” he said. “This issue is so explosive and emotional and has been so publicly discussed across the country that it is difficult to come to a conclusion.”
Even while House Republicans met Tuesday night in the Capitol basement to consider various scenarios, several GOPers relayed that some of their colleagues already carried a sense of dread. Dejection. Defeat.
The abortion and Planned Parenthood bills approved by the House weren’t going anywhere. The Senate probably can’t break a filibuster on its abortion bill Tuesday. The gig is already up. They’ll have to wait for budget reconciliation to truly cut Planned Parenthood money. And then Obama will veto that bill this fall.
“We need a president who has a similar view,” said McConnell about prospects for really slashing Planned Parenthood’s money.
And so this is the plan for now. Which, at least officially, really isn’t the plan. Until it is the plan. And then isn’t the plan.