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The Road to a Possible Government Shutdown: Who’s Not Willing to Compromise?

March 31, 2011 at 10:59 AM
BY
Robert Greenstein

I noted recently how far the goal posts have moved in the debate over fiscal year 2011 discretionary appropriations.  Given the pronounced movement toward ever larger cuts — including media reports this morning that the White House has offered another $23 billion in cuts below those already enacted — it’s hard to understand why anyone would take seriously charges that Democrats have not moved on discretionary spending or are refusing to negotiate.  The charge that the impasse is Senate Democrats’ fault, because they have not passed a full-year 2011 appropriations bill, also rings hollow as explained below.

Let’s look at where we are now and how we got there.

Under the continuing resolution that expires April 8, discretionary funding is already $35 billion below the 2010 level, adjusted for inflation, and $51 billion below the level in the President’s 2011 budget.

Cutting another $23 billion would produce an overall discretionary funding level that is:

  • roughly three-fourths of the way from the level the President proposed in his 2011 budget to the level in H.R. 1 — the full-year appropriation bill that the House passed on February, which would cut discretionary funds by $102 billion below the President’s level, and that (as our analysis shows) would slash funds for programs from Head Start to college Pell Grants to ensuring safe drinking water;

  • $53 billion below the level proposed last year by Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), which Senate Republicans unanimously supported last year (but which they now have walked away from, saying it doesn’t cut funding enough); and

  • almost exactly at the level that House Republican leaders themselves made on February 3, before Tea Party-affiliated members pushed Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to a more extreme position.


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It makes little sense for anyone to claim that the White House and Senate Democrats have been unwilling to compromise on cuts in 2011 appropriations because they haven’t accepted H.R. 1.

It also makes little sense for House Republican leaders to blame Senate Democrats because the Senate hasn’t passed 2011 appropriation bills.  The Senate hasn’t passed them for a simple reason: Senate Republican leaders won’t let that occur.  With 60 votes needed to pass just about everything in the Senate, the 47 Republicans — apparently at the behest of their House Republican colleagues — have refused to allow any bill to pass that contains smaller cuts than those of H.R. 1.

As noted above, Senate Republicans last year insisted that 2011 appropriations adhere to the Sessions-McCaskill level.  They stuck to that position through last spring, summer, and early fall.  Senate Democratic leaders resisted for months but relented in September and agreed to work with Senate Republicans to produce a bipartisan bill at the Sessions-McCaskill level.

Senate Democratic and Republican appropriations staffs worked through October and November, producing a bill at the Sessions-McCaskill level that Senate Democratic leaders brought to the Senate floor in December.  But, by then, House Republicans and Tea Party activists had turned up the heat and Senator McConnell responded by withdrawing his blessing and threatening a filibuster.  As a result, the bill to fund the government at the Sessions-McCaskill level couldn’t get the 60 votes needed to pass.

That’s been the story of the fiscal 2011 appropriations cycle — a story of the goal posts being moved by Republican demands for ever deeper cuts; Democrats moving toward these deeper cuts over time; and Republicans charging that Democrats have not offered enough by way of cuts, that Democrats should be blamed for what has essentially been Senate Republicans’ refusal to allow 2011 appropriations bills to pass that chamber (unless the bills adopt the full level of cuts the Republican House wants), and that Democrats are to blame if the government shuts down.  It’s a tale worthy of George Orwell.