Breakdancing Around Nitroglycerin

It's an annual ritual.

Shortly after the autumnal equinox, two, little letters seize the Congressional vocabulary.

The leaves fade. Daylight slips away a few moments earlier each night.

And the letters "CR" begin to roll off the tongues of lawmakers, aides and journalists.

"How long will the CR run?"

"We've told the leadership we want a clean CR."

"Are they going to load that onto the CR?"

Off Capitol Hill, the letters "CR" might refer to the art of Conflict Resolution, Costa Rica, the Caledonian Railway or Chromium, an element on the periodic table.

But in Washington, a "CR" means the government is open for business.

The letters "CR" are short for Continuing Resolution. That's a special type of bill that Congress usually approves in late September to run government agencies for a specified period of time.

And in the next 24 hours, the House and Senate are poised to approve a CR to operate the federal government until after the midterm elections.

Here's what happens:

Each year, the House and Senate must approve 12 distinct bills to fund the federal government. These measures originate in subcommittees that are charged with bankrolling various federal departments and programs, ranging from "Energy and Water" to "Labor, Heath and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies" to "Defense." In fact, the chairs of these subcommittees are so powerful that they're often referred to as "Cardinals" because of their "eminence" of that sector of federal spending.

The House and Senate is supposed to approve each of these bills and send them to the president by September 30, the end of the government's fiscal year. If the president hasn't signed a given bill into law by that time, that area of the federal government must close.

That is, unless Congress and the president agree on a CR that continues paying for government programs at the same level as the year before.

Which is precisely what the House and Senate plan to do this time. The House has approved two spending packages. The Senate has passed just one.

"I think you're going to know about it before I do," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) when asked what was in this CR as she emerged from a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

The Senate is expected to consider the bill today. The House could follow suit as early as tonight.

"Whatever the Senate passes - they'll send it over and we'll pass it," said Pelosi.

She indicated that this Continuing Resolution would keep the government humming until December 3, more than a month after the pivotal, midterm elections. By that point, the House and Senate must either approve the individual spending bills or agree to another stopgap bill. If not, the government shuts down.


Some years ago, they called it "the train wreck." Around Capitol Hill, you won't find railroad tracks or demolished locomotives and boxcars. But the aftermath of one of the ugliest political deadlocks in American history is strewn about the Congressional complex if you know where to look.

The "train wreck" refers to the legendary, partial government shutdowns of 1995, spurred due to an impasse between then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and President Clinton.

No one talks much about "government shutdowns" any more. That's because the shutdowns of 1995 left deep scars on the Capitol that are still remembered to this day.

That's the last time the government closed. The stalemate politically imperiled Gingrich and propelled Clinton toward re-election in 1996. Such a scenario seemed improbable as Gingrich led the GOP to victory just two years earlier. The episode forever wounded Gingrich and proved to be the beginning of the end for the Republican revolution.

A balanced budget was one of the GOP's key mantras in 1994 and 1995. And by the time September 30, 1995 rolled around, Congress had only passed two appropriations bills. So Congress and the White House crafted a CR to keep the government open until November 13.

Republicans gambled. They wanted to dare the president into either agreeing to their plan to balance the federal budget in seven years or shutting down the government. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) was prepping to run against Clinton in 1996. And Dole believed that if Clinton didn't cave to the GOP's demands, the president's "fingerprints" would be all over a government shutdown.

Then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) warned then-Vice President Al Gore that Republicans were willing to close the government in order to reel in the budget.

"You guys lose if the government shuts down," Gore warned DeLay.

History proved Gore right.

The Republicans submitted another CR to President Clinton on November 13. That CR would have enabled the government to operate, but only until the sides could hammer out a budget pact.

Clinton called the GOP's bluff. He vetoed the CR and parts of the federal government fell silent the next day, furloughing 150,000 federal employees.

That's when the Republicans began to lose the PR war.

Tourists fired off angry missives to lawmakers for being stuck in Washington, unable to visit Smithsonian Museums.

The government remained shuttered for six days, double the time of any previous work stoppage.

Congress finally approved a new CR on November 19.

But the battle wasn't over.

Republican hopes nosedived a few days later when the New York Post ran an article suggesting that Gingrich and Dole felt slighted after flying on Air Force One to attend the funeral of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. The story argued they were mad they had to exit through the back of the plane.

Budget talks stalled once more. And the government closed again December 15.

More government paychecks stopped at the height of the holiday shopping season. Headlines described the speaker as "The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas."

They finally approved another temporary bill just before Christmas. But after the new year, the gig was up. Dole was nervous about running for president.

"Enough is enough," Dole said in early January.

Congress finally re-opened the government for good on January 6, 1996.

A poll a few days later showed that 50 percent of those surveyed sided with President Clinton during the dispute. Only 22 percent backed Gingrich.


Earlier this month, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) spoke to the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington. The Congressman asked those in attendance for their backing if Republicans win the House this fall and have to challenge President Obama.

"If the government shuts down, we want you with us," Westmoreland said. "We've got to have you because later on, you will call us and say, ‘Look I didn't get my check. Daddy can't go to the VA, you know. National parks are closed.'"

Westmoreland indicated that such "there's going to have to be some pain for us to do some things that we've got to do to right the ship."

There won't be any "pain" this time around. But some conservatives like Westmoreland are itching for a fight against a weakened president next year if the GOP wins the House in November.

This sounds familiar.

But for now, CR's rule the day.

Two years ago around this time, Republicans were trying to avert heavy losses in Congress and bolster the flagging presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Some conservatives whispered that the GOP should close the government.

A reporter asked Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL) if Republicans might engineer a government shutdown to boost their fates in November.

Putnam was taken aback at the assertion.

"That's like trying to break-dance around nitroglycerin," said Putnam, noting the extraordinary political risk involved in orchestrating a shutdown for electoral leverage.

The 1995 shutdown saga echoes through the halls of Congress even today. So don't expect any government shutdowns. Just watch for two letters: C and R.