Efforts to Avert Shutdown Create Skepticism for Supercommittee

The comedy organization The Onion plunged the Congressional community into a tizzy Thursday morning with bogus reports and Tweets that Congressmen took schoolchildren hostage in the Capitol Rotunda and that witnesses heard gunfire emanating from the building.

Considering the typical security trauma that regularly engulfs Capitol Hill, it's no wonder many realized it was satire, prompting an investigation by the U.S. Capitol Police.

To wit: The Capitol was the target of the plane downed in Pennsylvania on 9-11. The FBI just arrested a man who planned to pack remote-controlled airplanes with explosives and fly them into the Capitol. When last month's earthquake rattled the Capitol, the already skittish Congressional workforce immediately assumed someone detonated a bomb. And this is to say nothing of the January shooting that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), injured two staffers and killed aide Gabe Zimmerman.

If The Onion really wanted to lampoon Congress, it might instead send a farcical Tweet that the supercommittee charged with stripping $1.2 trillion in spending reached a robust deal and that House and Senate leaders expected the package to sail through.

Pessimism reigns supreme on Capitol Hill these days about the likelihood of the supercommittee to forge an agreement to sidestep the automatic "trigger" which would prompt staggering defense cuts, perplex the markets and affirm Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade the nation's credit rating.

Why the dyspepsia? Congress can barely accomplish its basic work like funding the government at regular intervals. On Thursday, the House averted a possible weekend shutdown by okaying enough money to skate by until next week. The House will then have to vote again to align itself with the Senate by voting on a broader stopgap measure to run the government until mid-November.

It was all Congress could do to avoid the shutdown. The sides bickered over GOP-proposed reductions to green energy and vehicle programs to offset an infusion of money targeted for the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state of affairs finally forced the Senate to engineer a series of complex, procedural gymnastics to at least keep the government humming through next week in hopes that the House would follow suit.

The House ultimately okayed the abbreviated spending bill on Thursday with just three members in the chamber and no objections. But Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who was on site to monitor the floor for the Democrats, indicated that it wouldn't have taken much to gum up the works.

"Any person could have gotten up and objected to (this agreement). And if that happened, either the government would have shut down on Friday or we would have had to scramble and get everybody here for a full vote," Van Hollen said. "On a normal day when people object, the majority can always overturn that. But this procedure in the House required unanimous consent and just one person could have thrown a monkey wrench in the gears. I'm glad nobody did that."

This leaves people perplexed about the supercommittee if lawmakers must undertake such extreme machinations to accomplish the basics.

"It certainly doesn't portend well for the supercommittee," said Congressional observer Brendan Daly, who formerly served as communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "I don't think people realize what a Herculean task they have."

The general public might not. But members of the supercommittee certainly do. In recent days, supercommittee members have uttered very little about their negotiations. Most have resorted to dispensing verbal Pablum, telling awaiting reporters the session was "productive" or that they were "making progress. But supercommittee member Van Hollen expressed apprehension about the chances for success.

"I've always been in the camp where I hope we can go big. Get some sort of an overarching agreement that tackles a lot of these issues," Van Hollen said. "I don't know if we'll be able to get there or not. Only time will tell."

As a part of August's debt ceiling pact, the supercommittee is required to issue a set of recommended cuts by November 18. Both bodies of Congress must then agree to the reductions to prevent a fiscal meat cleaver from falling on the Pentagon's budget.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) presided over Thursday's brief House session and shares the skepticism of his Free State colleague.

"The question is how will we get to that $1.2 trillion," Harris said. "We have automatic (defense) sequestration if we don't meet those deadlines. So one way or the other, there will be $1.2 trillion cut from the budgets in the next ten years."

The supercommittee may be the panel Congressional leaders enlisted to deflect the massive Pentagon cuts. But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) is certainly the rear guard. McKeon says House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told him that if the supercommittee couldn't find a way to slash $1.2 trillion in spending, he wanted the consequences to be so onerous that no lawmaker from either party could swallow it. So, the debt ceiling agreement introduced the "defense sequestration," an automatic rollback in Pentagon spending should the supercommittee fail.

McKeon was openly contemptuous of the supercommittee's obligation if it fails to reach an accord.

"Leave us alone," was McKeon's message from the defense community to the supercommittee. "The whole idea about how they're going about it (cutting money) is just wrong. We have to sit down and figure out how this will affect us."

McKeon's staff has now done just that. It determined that the Navy could be forced to mothball some 60 ships. The Army would yield Maneuver Battalions. The Air Force would forego around a quarter of all bombers. McKeon said the fiscal chopping would break the Marine Corps and leave the nation with a "hollow force akin to the Carter era."

In a letter to McKeon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and White House Budget Director Jack Lew warned that threatened "reductions of this magnitude, imposed in this manner, could pose a significant risk to national security."

So the hysteria of possible government shutdowns and a federal default, Congress stares again into a fiscal abyss.

One can discover a case study in this state of perpetual peril in the annual spending bill designed to fund the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services and Education. Released just Thursday, this legislation often serves as a fulcrum which divides the parties. The measure encompasses spending priorities on wedge issues like the new health care law, Planned Parenthood, public broadcasting, Pell Grants and heating assistance to the poor. The proposal rescinds $8 billion for programs which implement various aspects of the health care law and trims heating assistance by more than a quarter. In a statement, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said that "excessive and wasteful spending over the years has put many of the programs and agencies funded in this bill on an irresponsible and unsustainable fiscal path."

Meantime, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the top Democrat on the panel which controls funding for these programs, blasted Republicans. She asserted Republicans made many of their cuts come on the backs of the poor. But the dirty secret is that it's unlikely the Appropriations Committee will ever go through a full write-up of this package, let alone bring it to the floor. It's simply too controversial to garner enough votes from both sides of the aisle. In total, the bill spends $153 billion in the new fiscal year. But even conservative appropriators like Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) oppose the blueprint and want even deeper cuts.

That leaves Democrats and Republicans tangling over a bill which will never see the light of day. It's indicative of the brinksmanship that's plagued Congress all year long.

"It just tells you that the game going on the Hill is almost entirely symbolic," said Tom Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution who's writing a book about dysfunctional politics.

So it's likely Congress will come right down to the wire to approve the next batch of spending to keep the government open and to okay any product conjured up by the supercommittee. Melodrama like this makes last-day-of-the-season antics between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays look like a fait accompli. But if lawmakers ever do make a compact, the sheer speed of an agreement will make heads spin, despite the yawning chasms that now divide the sides.

"It can be very difficult to get to yes," said Chris Van Hollen. "But when you get to yes, things move quickly around here."

Almost as fast as a satirical Tweet.