Call it the new normal.
Whereas in previous decades budgets were typically passed without the constant threat of shutdown, the battles of 1995-96 during the Clinton presidency — which included two brief government closures — now seem to have only hinted at what was to come.
In the era of the Obama White House and a Tea Party-dominated House Republican majority, there’s no knowing when the next impasse could bring the United States grinding to a halt.
This week’s chapter saw the House Republicans provide new funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through mid-November — but only by requiring offsets of other programs, an unprecedented demand. Without new funding, federal departments and agencies will close on September 30th.
“Eric Cantor threw this new grenade in the mix where he said for the first time that we’re going to offset disaster relief,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a respected voice on budget issues.
“We’re in a pattern where every time you’ve got a must do thing, Republicans are going to extract something for it. Look at what [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell said after the debt limit fight: ‘we’ve seen this can be productive.’ Hostage taking. Ransom taking. That’s the new way of doing business in Washington.”
Democrats in both chambers balked at supporting a bill that provided new funding for disaster relief at the expense of a fuel-efficient vehicle initiative. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the proposed cut a “job destroyer.”
New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s stance is typical of many Democrats. Her office said she was unwilling to back the Republican version of the bill with the offsets attached.
“She voted against the House bill today, and urges the House to pass the bipartisan Senate funding bill. Congress should remain in session until it does so,” said spokesman Glen Caplin.
This current budget impasse seems to have caught some Democrats — and even many in the press corps — by surprise.
“I thought the last thing in the world the Republicans would want to do is see another shutdown, but look at that vote yesterday in the House of Representatives,” Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic Majority Whip, said Thursday.
Perhaps he hasn’t been paying close enough attention.
“I was kind of amused a few weeks ago to see some stories in the New York Times and elsewhere where reporters had been reassured by Republican leaders in the House who said there wouldn’t be any problem when the new fiscal year began because they settled all the numbers with the debt limit deal,” Ornstein said.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a Monday evening vote on a bill identical to the House-passed resolution — but without the energy offsets.
“Everyone once in a while needs a little cooling off period,” he said. “I would hope over the weekend the four leaders could lead their troops in the right direction.”
The latest battle has some wondering whether the constant brinkmanship by this Republican Congress could come back to bite it next November. In the meantime, the polarization and budget warfare have even long-time observers of Congress shaking their heads.
“I always think it can’t get any worse and then it does, again and again,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. “This week’s fiasco over a short-term CR [continuing resolution], one based on an agreement reached last month, is outrageous and embarrassing. Emergency funds for FEMA are almost never “paid for.” Threatening to shut the government down because of an insistence on doing so, even though the Senate refuses to go along, puts the Speaker and his party in the position of responsibility. The only question is whether our political system retains any capacity to hold them accountable.”