WASHINGTON – One crisis averted, on to the next. The day after Congress managed to avoid a government shutdown — again — Republicans and Democrats stared ahead Tuesday at major fights over spending that underscore a deep divide that’s sure to define the fast-approaching national elections.
Monday night, lawmakers had postponed their dispute over whether billions for disaster aid must be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget, finessing a pact to keep the government operating.
But tea party-driven Republicans are still insisting on significant spending cuts this fall, with some arguing that a hard-fought congressional agreement this summer to fund the government at $1.043 trillion in 2012 was too generous. Democrats, many of whom complained of too many concessions and reductions in this year’s showdowns, are furiously trying to protect government programs.
The next skirmish will be over how and where to spend the new year’s budget, with a Nov. 18 deadline for that legislation. President Barack Obama’s $447 billion jobs proposal that would cut payroll taxes and increase spending on school construction and other infrastructure has already divided the parties. But the next really big deal is the special 12-member bipartisan supercommittee and whether it can come up with a plan to slash $1.5 trillion over 10 years by Nov. 23 — the day before Thanksgiving.
These fights will unfold against the backdrop of a feeble economy that Obama is desperate to jump-start as he pushes for a second term, and an exasperated electorate that looks at Washington and dislikes what it sees.
“The heat will be on, the heat from the American people,” said former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who believes Americans struggling economically will be asking, “Why stretch us out like this?”
Lawmakers also will be under pressure from political factions demanding that they stand firm for party beliefs.
“You have to support getting control of excessive spending and debt,” said Sal Russo, a longtime Republican operative and founder of the Tea Party Express, a well-funded wing of the populist movement. “Are you helping to solve the problem or making it worse?”
Shortly after Senate votes on Monday, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., thanked party leaders “for helping the Democratic Party find the backbone it needed to fight and win this debate.”
The disaster aid dispute that threatened to partially shut down the government this weekend was resolved relatively quickly after a standoff between Democrats and Republicans. The fight, however, was an unpleasant reminder to most Americans of the last-minute maneuvering in April to avert a shutdown and the August showdown over raising the nation’s borrowing authority that left financial markets unnerved.
This time, Democrats had spent weeks demanding additional disaster aid in response to hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters that had battered Americans from Vermont to Missouri. Republicans had said the additional aid had to be offset by cuts in energy-related programs that Democrats favored. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had warned that its accounts would be out of money early this week.
A solution to keep the government operating seemed uncertain last week. Then word from the Obama administration that FEMA wasn’t in as dire financial straits as many feared proved to be the answer.
On Saturday, the administration told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that FEMA could last until Thursday with the money it had. Specifically, an unknown contractor had come in under budget, freeing some $40 million, said Democratic and Republican congressional aides.
On Sunday morning, Reid reached out to House Speaker John Boehner’s staff, informed them of the more promising financial outlook for FEMA and proposed two bare-bones emergency spending bills, one to keep the government operating for a week and another until Nov. 18. Boehner’s office contacted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with the latest developments and proposal.
McConnell’s office made a quick check with the Senate Republican vote counter, Jon Kyl of Arizona, on whether such a plan would fly with the GOP.
FEMA was still saying Thursday, possibly Friday, before the money ran out, but a way out had emerged. Within hours on Monday, Democrats and Republicans had agreed on an emergency spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. FEMA would get $2.65 billion in disaster relief assistance in a one-week bill, $1 billion less than approved by tea party Republicans.
Chris Krueger, a political analyst for the brokerage firm MF Global, said, “Both sides are convinced this continued threat of government shutdown benefits no incumbents.”
The House, on recess this week, probably will back the one-week measure by voice vote Thursday and vote separately next week to keep the government running through Nov. 18.
“The perils of Pauline,” said John Feehery, a Republican political consultant and former congressional aide. “Every new episode has a new cliffhanger.”
In a letter dated Sept. 26, Jacob Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote congressional leaders that as FEMA approached the last five days of the fiscal year this week, “it appears that weather systems forming off our shores will not significantly affect the United States. That, in combination with FEMA’s rigorous cash management mechanism, means” the agency could operate for much of the week.
Congress may have a harder time weathering the storms of budget showdowns, a reality that lawmakers acknowledged.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said he traveled through his home state of Illinois this past weekend and when Americans “see us break down into another cussing match over shutting down the government, they say `for goodness sake, grow up, group up and accept your responsibility.”
McConnell, R-Ky., said the “entire fire-drill was completely unnecessary.”
With some 80 percent of Americans disapproving of Congress, a remarkable number for a major government institution, outsiders see few winners.
“They don’t really realize they are playing Russian roulette,” said Robert E. Denton Jr., head of the communications department at Virginia Tech.