Shutdown Showdown

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, John Stanton, senior writer at Roll Call and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, discuss the possible federal government shut down unless Republicans and Democrats reach a last minute deal.

Culture Wars, Re-Ignited

With the specter of a government shutdown looming, reports today are that the biggest point of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is no longer the actual budget, but social issues. Specifically, the Republicans want to include a rider in the budget that would cut off Title X funds to Planned Parenthood women's health clinics in Washington DC.

An agreement on the actual budget is near, and appears to be a compromise of about $34.5 billion in cuts. Republican Mike Pence cast the current debate as being not about the deficit, but about Democrats preferring to “shut the government down so they can continue to borrow money from China to fund the largest abortion provider in America.” 

Susan Page said that other Republicans are objecting to that framing.

John Boehner, the speakers office, said just in the last hour that spending‘s still the big issue and there is some dispute, not only about the very small dollar amount that separates them but about the composition of the cuts. But these policy riders, specifically the one on abortion are clearly also on the table.

Stanton agreed that Republicans are still fighting over dollars as well as social issues.

Republicans obviously want the abortion language and some other riders... but Republicans also have a point when it comes to the spending. Democrats don’t want all the cuts to come from discretionary funding from education or the environment or labor because in future budgets going forward, that would push the number down and make it much more difficult for them to hold the line there in their priorities.

Confusingly, while the Republicans object to Title X on the argument that federal money shouldn't pay for abortion, the Hyde amendment already mandates that the federal government may not pay for abortions for poor women.  Stanton explained that Republicans are arguing to cut all funding, even that which would go toward other health services (including prenatal care) for poor women, because they argue that any federal money that goes to Planned Parenthood frees up other money within the organization that could subsidize abortions for low-income women.

They view Planned Parenthood in particular as sort of a pro-abortion organization so they are hostile towards them and want to take the money away from them.

 Page joked that one has to live in Washington DC to understand that sort of logic. She said the gesture is largely symbolic.

This is a rider that is important to that portion of the Republican Party who are real hardcore social conservative for whom the idea of abortion is at the very top of their agenda.  I think a lot of Republicans, including the leadership, are worried about this, because… political independents, who decide elections, do not think we should shut down the government because of this policy rider involving money that COULD free up other money that COULD be used to help provide abortions for poor women.

Independents Want Compromise, Tea Partiers Don't

Recent polls indicate a significant schism growing between independents and Republicans. While a majority of Republicans want the House to stick to their guns, even if it means a shutdown, a majority of the country want the House to compromise and avoid a shutdown. Boehner may be in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to disappoint the Tea Party or make himself unlikely to win reelction. Page said Speaker Boener is in a very difficult spot. 

I think he has to decide how many of the Tea Party people he’s willing to lose, and still get a deal through. I think that’s the calculation he has to make.

Stanton agreed, and cautioned that things may not be what they seem in this budget deliberation.  

A lot of this has nothing to do with this fight at all. A lot of this has to do with the next budget fight for the next year, and even more importantly the debt limits increase that they’re going to have to vote on to make sure we don’t default on our loans. Speaker Boehner is going to have a lot of trouble keeping his people at home. He has decided for his own political calculus reasons, that he needs to pass these things with the greatest Republican majority possible… He’s gaming it out three steps, really.

The real fight will be about the next budget, said Page, so we might as well get used to this level of drama now. 

This fight is nothing, this is the sparring match before the main bout, which we’re going to see on the 2012 budget, on raising the debt ceiling, and especially in the debate over entitlements that also got launched last week. So as dramatic as a government shutdown sounds, we are in for a year of these kind of cliff-hanger debates.

The Trouble with Riders: EPA, NPR 

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said that many of the original riders, such as the EPA riders which would have prevented the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases as pollutants, have been dropped. The Senator believes all the focus now is on the Title X [DC family planning] riders. “It’s hard to believe that House Representatives would shut down the government over this issue, but it looks like that’s where we’re headed unless they back off.” 

Stanton, however, is not convinced that, in fact, all the other riders are gone for good. 

The NPR language [a rider that would prohibit the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from funding NPR] I believe has been gone for now, the EPA may be off the table given the fact that there’s so much Senate opposition to it, but there are a lot of other ones that I think are still on the table and those could come back in.  It depends on where the Republicans are willing to give more on the mandatory spending versus discretionary spending; they’re going to demand more back on the policy rider side of things.

The Tea Party initially cast itself as being about a laser-like focus on fiscal issues, consciously leaving social issues behind, but Page said that they seem to have gone off-message rather quickly. 

That was certainly one reason the Tea Party was so powerful in 2009. They had a message that a lot of people — conservatives, independents, and moderates — agreed on, that spending was out of control and it put the countries future at risk and we needed to address it...  Some analysts think that what is happening with these policy riders is the Republicans are holding on to them as a final card to play, a final concession to make that would help them get more cuts and the kind of cuts they want.  And also that it serves them in terms of dealing with their own caucus, with Republicans in the House, to say ‘Boy we really fought for these, but at this last moment we’re going to have to give in on this abortion rider in order to get this deal through’. I think it is possible. Amazingly enough there is a lot of politics as well as actual financial discipline going on here.

Will There be a Shutdown Tomorrow?

Stanton thinks that is unlikely.

I still believe we will get a deal, and it will happen sometime this afternoon when Speaker Boehner talks to his conference and tries to sell them on an agreement. I’m still hopeful they can get it done.

Page was more cautious in her optimism, but said even a shut down might not be as bad as people think.  

People who are watching this closely in Washington are inclined to think that we will get a deal before they shut down. There are some who think we could get as shutdown through the weekend when it has less effect on people’s lives… No one thinks we’re in for the kind of extended shutdown we had at the end of 1995 that had such catastrophic effects on the Republican majority then.