Inching ever closer to a government shutdown

INCHING EVER CLOSER TO A GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN…. For those hoping to see Congress avoid a government shutdown next week, yesterday was more than a little discouraging.

For what it’s worth, it’s getting easier to summarize the nature of the debate, and both parties have straightforward, easy-to-define positions. For Democrats, the line is, “Let’s give ourselves more time to discuss budget cuts.” For Republicans, the line is, “Give us budget cuts first, and then we’ll discuss budget cuts.”

That may sound silly, but it’s actually the state of affairs among congressional leaders.

As the strategic jockeying in a fight over federal spending kicked into high gear, the Republican House speaker, John A. Boehner, said on Tuesday that it was up to the White House and the Democrats who control the Senate to agree to at least some Republican-backed cuts to help reach a short-term deal and avoid a government shutdown early next month.

The House on Saturday approved more than $60 billion in spending reductions, for the fiscal year that runs through Sept. 30, that would hit nearly every area of the government. Not one Democrat voted for the bill, and the White House has threatened to veto it.

Senate Democrats, saying more time is needed to reach a longer-term agreement, are calling for a 30-day extension that would continue to hold spending generally at last year’s levels, but Republicans say that is not enough.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) presented an approach yesterday he thought offered a way out of the mess. By midday, he’d asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to produce a “clean” bill — no hidden goodies, no pork, no policy measures — that would keep the government’s lights on for 30 days. The point, of course, would be to avoid a shutdown and give policymakers time to work out a deal for the rest of the fiscal years.

Better yet, Reid’s plan is arguably a spending-cut plan — it would maintain spending levels below the White House’s budget request, which is what House Republicans have used as a baseline.

Naturally, GOP leaders immediately announced that Reid’s plan isn’t good enough. They said they expect the Senate to vote on the brutal cuts the House approved over the weekend — a plan Republicans know can’t pass — and barring that, Boehner & Co. demand the upper chamber agree to “some” cuts, though the minimum figure remains unclear.

And the response to that from Senate Democrats is that they’re “willing to go deeper” into the budget, but “want a few weeks to work this out.”

An inflexible deadline looms, and policymakers have until a week from Friday to figure something out. Last week, I said there’s a 70% chance of a shutdown. As of this morning, I’d say it’s at least 80%.