Shutdown likely to be averted (at least for two weeks)

SHUTDOWN LIKELY TO BE AVERTED (AT LEAST FOR TWO WEEKS)…. As recently as Friday morning, it seemed almost inevitable that congressional Republicans would shut down the federal government on March 4. By late Friday afternoon, however, a plan for a reprieve came together.

Over the weekend, bipartisan support coalesced around the plan, making it quite unlikely we’ll see a shutdown this week.

The spotlight returns to Capitol Hill today, where lawmakers are trying to forge a compromise spending bill and avert a government shutdown after a recess that saw the nation riveted by acrimonious budget battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats began negotiating a short-term continuing resolution last week when it became clear five days were insufficient to resolve differences over a larger spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2011 that cleared the House on Feb. 19. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled Friday that he was inclined to support a short-term CR proposed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), although the Nevada Democrat attempted to couch his position as a Republican capitulation.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), whose opinion as Senate Budget Committee chairman matters quite a bit, told CNN the two-week package is “acceptable,” though he’s still looking for a compromise that lasts longer than two weeks.

If you missed the news over the weekend, the breakthrough happened when Republicans changed their demands — they had asked for a package of $4 billion in cuts over two weeks, a prorated version of their larger spending plan. On Friday, GOP leaders instead called for $4 billion in cuts that Democrats had already requested, most of which came from earmarks in the current budget.

The compromise required some movement from both sides. Senate Democrats said they wanted to temporarily maintain current spending levels while negotiations continued on a larger package of cuts, but they felt compelled to go along with a set of cuts they’d already requested. House Republicans wanted their $4 billion in cuts, but had to shift gears to accommodate Dems.

While the debate continues as to who blinked first, the bottom line remains the same: the House is expected to pass this temporary extension, probably tomorrow, giving the Senate just a couple of days to pass it and send it to the Oval Office. If approved, as now appears likely, the new shutdown deadline will be March 18.

But before we move, it’s worth reemphasizing how unserious Republicans have been about the budgeting process itself. 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.

The GOP’s 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 Republican 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 when it comes to the GOP’s approach, there’s just no seriousness of purpose here.