They Went to Cut the Budget and a Hockey Game Broke Out

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The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders duked it out in one of the roughest National Hockey League games in recent memory Friday night. The Islanders stomped the Penguins 9-3. But the real story was the staggering 351 minutes in penalties meted out by officials due to 16 separate fistfights. The referees ejected 11 players. After numerous misconduct penalties, the Penguins finished the match with only seven skaters available to play.

But whatever unfolded on the ice Friday night will seem as tame as second grade library hour compared to the fisticuffs that could unfold on the House floor next week. That's when House Republicans launch debate on a bill to cleave $100 billion out of the federal budget. Republicans and Democrats alike are already lining up for the marquee event of the year in Congress.

House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood might consider asking National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman to loan him a few linesmen to break up the scraps that are sure to erupt on the House floor between legislative pugilists.

The actual bill is designed to run the government between March 4 and September 30. And House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is taking a road grader to plow dozens of federal programs into oblivion. Democrats were up in arms a few weeks ago when the original blueprint only intended to prune the government of $32 billion in spending. But that ballooned to $100 billion after conservative Republicans and many freshmen balked, demanding the GOP reach the higher threshold.

Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) is one of the delegates from the freshman class to the GOP leadership. He says the Pledge to America called for $100 billion in cuts. So it was critical "symbolism" for Republicans to produce a bill that makes good on that promise.

"Success is when you hit your number," said Scott. "There is no question that reaching the $100 billion mark is one way to say to the American people that we're listening."

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) heads the Republican Study Committee, the bloc of the most-conservative voices in the House. Jordan would like to see even more significant cuts. But he says it was essential for the GOP to show voters they were serious right out of the gate.

"It's the old cliché: You get once chance to make a first impression," Jordan said. "It's going to be made next week in the CR (Continuing Resolution)."

Will voters give Republicans a nod of approval because the GOP is doing what it told them they would do when they won control of the House? Or will voters have a different "first impression" once they realize where the cuts are?

$100 billion doesn't mean much until one understands what is on the chopping block. So Democrats fired off scores of press releases Friday to make sure people knew what was at stake.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, argued that the legislation would exacerbate the country's economic situation. He noted that many of the reductions were in transportation, education and law enforcement.

In particular, Dicks criticized eliminating money set aside for meat and poultry inspectors, Head Start and state assistance programs that help states and local governments hire police officers. Dicks also took aim at a funding freeze for Pell Grants. Dicks argues this will reduce maximum grants by at least $800 per student.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) called the spending reductions to transportation "reckless and dangerous." He claimed the GOP was trying to balance the budget "on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society." In particular, Nadler pointed to cuts for the Women, Infants and Children program and legal assistance to the poor.

"The Republicans now seem intent on forcing a complete government shutdown to impose their regressive agenda" Nadler said in a statement.

Ah. The government shutdown. The holy grail of the legislative impasse. The most volatile weapon in the legislative arsenal. The government shutdown holds sensational powers that can be used artfully against your political foe. But by the same token, the instability of this tool can backfire on those who attempt to brandish it for political gain.

Top Republican leaders have said repeatedly that they have no interest in trying to shut down the government. But Democrats know too well what happened in 1995 when a bunch of upstart conservative freshmen took the Capitol by storm, led by then Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). Multiple government shutdowns ensued. Gingrich and the Republican revolution was never the same.

This current legislation that funds the government expires March 4. The threat of a government shutdown always looms if lawmakers aren't able to reach an agreement before a deadline. After a meeting a few days ago with Hal Rogers, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) said he expected to see a short-term bill or two to keep the government operating past March 4 until the sides settle on a bill to run the government until fall. But regardless, Democrats are trying to haunt Republicans with the shutdowns of 16 years ago as the GOP wields its budget cleavers today.

"I am disturbed that some Republicans have indicated a willingness to allow a government shutdown," said Inouye. "No responsible elected official should even consider such an option."

Tim Scott wasn't here for the 1995 government shutdown. But despite Inouye's admonition, Scott takes a philosophical approach to the fiscal crisis that looms over the United States.

"If you look in the future, 20 or 30 years from now and you say to yourself can the American government sustain the level of spending that we have today, there's no question that a shutdown is coming, whether they do it today or we do it in 20 years," Scott said when I interviewed him Friday.

I then asked Scott if he was willing to accept a short term shutdown in March if it forced the sides to craft a broader agreement that put the U.S. on a sound fiscal path.

"I think nothing's off the table at this point," Scott replied, being sure to say that no one wants to shutter the government.

In other words, Scott believes Republicans have a wedge against the Democrats here. Sure, a short-term shutdown would be onerous. But if nothing is done, the U.S. will never move to a bona fide track designed to rein in spending. And that presents serious long-term consequences.

That's the irony. President Clinton certainly won the public relations war after the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. However, the stalemate with Congressional Republicans brought the sides to an agreement that actually yielded a government surplus for several years.

Still, Scott has a parting shot for Democrats.

"If the government gets shut down, it will not be because we didn't put the best package on the table," Scott said defiantly. "It will be because they decided to shut it down."

This is where the fisticuffs will begin. The House will grapple with the bill for three days next week, then send it to the Democratically-controlled Senate. Which inevitably won't accept a cut as deep as what House Republicans approved. That could produce outright havoc on Capitol Hill as Congress draws to a boil. Much like Friday's Penguins-Islanders contest, gloves and hockey sticks will litter the rink as skirmishes break out all over. All with the March 4 deadline inching closer.

A few weeks ago, freshman Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) sent a letter to her constituents claiming that Congress "cut over $2.7 trillion from the budget" already.

If it were only that easy.

House officials had better make sure the door to the Congressional penalty box is well-oiled next week as lawmakers prep for what could be one of the rowdiest spending brawls in 16 years.