Backing away from the shutdown cliff (at least for now)

BACKING AWAY FROM THE SHUTDOWN CLIFF (AT LEAST FOR NOW)…. Just when it seemed a March 4 government shutdown was inevitable, a plan for a temporary reprieve came together. The shift will very likely buy policymakers some time, but only a little.

Under the [House Republicans’] proposal, the law now keeping the government open would be extended two more weeks, until March 18, at the price of $4 billion in new spending cuts. In the interim, House and Senate leaders would try to negotiate a broader plan to finance the government at reduced levels through Sept. 30. […]

They came up with the $4 billion by ending eight education, transportation and other programs that President Obama had previously sought to close down, a savings of almost $1.2 billion. They also reclaimed nearly $2.8 billion set aside for earmarks in the current budget; both the House and Senate have agreed to ban such pet projects.

House Republicans had said they wanted $4 billion in cuts, prorated to reflect the brutal cuts the chamber approved a week ago. Senate Democrats said they wanted to temporarily maintain current spending levels while negotiations continued on a larger package of cuts. The new plan requires some concessions from both — the GOP is getting a different $4 billion in cuts, which Dems were planning to push anyway.

Senate Democrats said they like the deal; Senate Republicans offered their endorsement; and House Republicans were the ones who crafted the proposal, so they’re obviously on board.

The next step will come Tuesday, when the House is expected to pass this temporary extension, giving the Senate just a couple of days to pass it and send it to the Oval Office. By all indications, everyone appears optimistic, but (a) someone could still figure out a way to screw up the deal between now and Friday; and (b) all this does is create a new shutdown deadline of March 18.

Before we move on, let’s also note how fundamentally unserious Republicans are about the entire budgeting process. The House GOP came up with a way to break the impasse, and I’m glad, but note the way in which the caucus went about achieving their goals. They picked an arbitrary number — $4 billion in cuts over 2 weeks — and then set out to shape a policy that met the capricious target. Earlier in the week, it was $4 billion in cuts the GOP liked; by yesterday they’d settled on $4 billion in cuts Democrats liked.

But Republicans’ point wasn’t to achieve some policy ends, it was to reach the arbitrary goal. Indeed, the $4 billion target became the objective because of a related arbitrary goal (the $100 billion in cuts) chosen for a campaign document.

In other words, this new plan allows GOP leaders to say they cut $4 billion just for the sake of cutting $4 billion, all as part of some larger, ideological vanity exercise.

I’m more than willing to give Republicans credit for shifting their demands and adopting Dems’ ideas about cuts, and I’m delighted the government probably won’t shut down, at least not this week. But that doesn’t change the fact that the way in which the GOP is approaching this process is ridiculous.