September 20, 2013

The budget standoff: In Congress, 'total atrophy'

Even with a shutdown set to occur in 11 days unless a deal is reached, lawmakers remain at loggerheads.

By LORI MONTGOMERY The Washington Post

When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor rolled out a list of Republican demands this week for raising the federal debt limit, there was a surprising omission: any real plan to tackle the debt.

John Boehner
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Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks to reporters in Washington on Thursday about the fight over the budget on Capitol Hill as critical deadlines to fund the government loom.

The Associated Press

Ted Cruz
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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: An antagonist on health care

Republicans have long vowed to use the threat of default to force Democrats to confront the soaring cost of caring for an aging population, the nation's central budget problem. Instead, Cantor, R-Va., revealed more limited ambitions: Delay the implementation of President Obama's health-care law for a year. Promote tax reform. Build the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Democrats, for their part, have largely stopped talking about imposing new taxes on the rich and are focused on reversing sharp spending cuts known as the sequester. As Washington slouches toward the next battle in its three-year budget war, both parties have abandoned the quest for a "grand bargain." Instead, with a shutdown set to occur in 11 days unless a deal is reached, lawmakers are aiming mainly just to keep the lights on and not miss a payment on the bills.

"It's total atrophy. We're earning our 11 percent popularity" rating, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the leader of the latest group of lawmakers to try to forge a big debt deal. "It's easier to talk about Obamacare than the major sources of our problems."


Meeting even the modest goals of routine governance could prove to be a tall order this time around. On Thursday, Obama made plans to talk with congressional leaders next week, the White House said. Meanwhile, House Republicans were preparing for a Friday vote on a plan to fund federal agencies through Dec. 15 but defund the health-care law -- a proposal even many senior Republicans were calling doomed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed to strip out the anti-Affordable Care Act provisions and send a plain government funding bill back to the House, saying that "any bill that defunds Obamacare is dead. Dead. It's a waste of time."

Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the health-care law's chief antagonist in the Senate, acknowledged that they have few procedural tools to block Reid's maneuver. Even if the Republicans filibuster the bill, Democrats say they have the votes to return it to the House by the end of next week.

Cruz's concession infuriated House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who called on Cruz and his Senate allies Thursday "to pick up the mantle and get the job done." Meanwhile, Boehner and his team were hatching a plan to rework whatever comes back from the Senate, push a new bill through the House and demand that the Senate vote again -- a strategy that would increase the odds of a shutdown on Oct. 1.

Among the ideas under consideration: Tack on an amendment that would take away benefits for members of Congress who participate in the health care law's insurance exchanges. The hope is that lawmakers in both parties would rather lose those individual subsidies -- worth about $5,000 to $11,000 annually -- than let the government shut down. But it's unclear how that largely symbolic gesture would further the cause of undermining the Affordable Care Act.

Regardless of whether they manage to keep the government open, lawmakers will face their next major deadline in late October. That's when analysts say the Treasury Department is likely to run short of cash to pay its bills unless Congress raises the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit.

House Republicans expect to vote as soon as next week to give Treasury enough borrowing authority to get through the 2014 midterm elections. In return, Cantor said, they will shoot for a grab bag of modest trophies, including approval of the Keystone pipeline, a timetable for tax reform, and "a variety of other measures designed to lower energy prices, simplify our tax system and get our economy going."

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