Why a government shutdown next month is unlikely

Following up on a report from two weeks ago, we knew this year would produce three procedural choke points , at which the threat of a government shutdown was quite real. The first was in early April, when funding for the current fiscal year nearly forced a shutdown. The second was the debt-ceiling vote, which was resolved about a month ago.

And then there’s the third one, which is coming right up.

When lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after Labor Day, they’ll have just a few weeks to approve new appropriations bills before October 1 to avoid yet another shutdown showdown. While April and July were obviously deeply contentious, it looks like this next round will go more smoothly, comparatively speaking.

Eager to avoid another round of budget brinksmanship, Congressional leaders hope that a little-noted spending agreement tucked into the debt limit deal reached this month can head off any threat of a government shutdown as the federal fiscal year draws to a close in September.

While provisions to raise the debt limit and create a Congressional deficit reduction committee drew most of the attention in the legislation that allowed the government to narrowly avert a default, House and Senate leaders also used the measure to establish federal spending limits for the next two years.

Lawmakers are still likely to clash over just how the money is parceled out to various agencies and the Pentagon. But members of both parties say the bipartisan compromise on overall spending makes it unlikely that an impasse will push Congress back to the brink of closing the government in a repeat of the April showdown that ended just hours before federal money ran out. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the threat of a shutdown fight has been “substantially” reduced.

For his part, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has already told his caucus he expects a fairly smooth process in September. “While all of us would like to have seen a lower discretionary appropriations ceiling for the upcoming fiscal year, the debt limit agreement did set a level of spending that is a real cut from the current year level,” Cantor said in a letter sent to House Republicans a couple of weeks ago. “I believe it is in our interest to enact into law full-year appropriations bills at this new lower level.”

In other words: don’t go screwing around. We’re already getting cuts.

And what kind of cuts are we talking about? The funding ceiling for the discretionary budget is $7 billion below current spending levels. While any spending cuts are a bad idea given the larger economic conditions, the lower level is not expected to have a significantly negative impact.

This process could, of course, still blow up. The leadership of the right-wing House Republican Study Committee asked its membership last week whether they wanted to use a shutdown threat as leverage — again — because hostage strategies have been effective before, but for now, GOP leaders appear inclined to stick to the existing budget framework.

After all, if Republicans push for cuts beyond the agreed upon levels, they’ll be reneging on a deal they just struck, and forcing a shutdown that would make the GOP look even worse.

The rank-and-file Republican members may not care, but odds of a shutdown, at least at this point, appear fairly remote.