Capitol building
Credit: Erick Drost/Flickr

The Republicans are struggling right now to pass legislation in the Senate at the 50-vote threshold required under special budget reconciliation rules. They’ve tried to arrange things so they can do tax and health care reforms at this lower filibuster-free threshold even though it limits what they can include in their bills to things that have a discernible impact on the budget. I don’t know whether their plan will succeed or not, but they’ll have to reach the more traditional 60-vote mark to enact their appropriations bills into law and fund the government.

Of course, the Republicans have not yet attempted to do anything at the 60-vote threshold, including (for the first time) confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Everything the Republicans have been doing so far has been based on getting unanimity in their own ranks and nothing they’ve done has anticipated this need to win the support of at least eight members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus.

The cost of taking this approach is that it will be much harder to convince eight Democrats to work with them than it might have been if they had sought a more bipartisan approach from the start. If they can’t overcome Democratic resistance to their appropriations, they’ll have no choice but to fund the government with a massive Continuing Resolution that maintains the Obama administration’s basic spending framework.

Per usual, the conservative members of the GOP are frustrating the reality-based members by their insistence on using magical thinking.

Republicans are divided over whether to work with Democrats on spending measures for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins in October.

Conservatives say Republicans should go their own way and pass a budget and spending bills that make deeper cuts to spending and reflect GOP values.

Centrist members say that strategy is unrealistic and will increase the chances of a shutdown or, worse, a continuing resolution that would simply maintain existing funding levels. The only way to avoid that outcome, they say, is to work with Democrats.

“If we don’t have a bipartisan budget agreement, there’s a very good chance we’ll end up with a continuing resolution,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a House moderate.

The debt ceiling vote won’t have the filibuster problem because the Democrats wouldn’t prevent a vote on avoiding a default of the United States’ debts. But it will be similar because the so many Republicans won’t vote for a clean debt ceiling bill that they’ll need Democrats in both houses of Congress in our order to pass it.

Dent said he hopes that Republicans will seek Democratic support not only on spending, but also on increasing the debt ceiling. Failure to address the debt ceiling would result in a U.S. debt default and could be a body blow to financial markets and the economy.

“Of course this will happen, because the alternative is unthinkable,” said Dent. “The question is how much drama will we endure between now and the time that happens.”

I think Charlie Dent is too optimistic. It’s very thinkable to me that the Republicans will cause a debt default through their ideologically-fueled incompetence and refusal to compromise.

On the appropriations bills, the conservatives are more concerned at the moment about getting jammed up by their own leadership than they are with the necessity of winning some Democratic support in the Senate.

But for all the moderates pushing to cut to the chase and deal with Democrats, a larger group is pushing to go it alone.

The House Budget Committee, for example, has been negotiating with the House Freedom Caucus over balancing top-line spending numbers with cuts to welfare programs. That approach would yield few, if any, Democratic votes.

Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) has promoted a plan to pass the 12 separate appropriations bills through subcommittees as usual, but then combine them into one omnibus bill before the August recess.

“I would say there is certainly consensus on passing all 12 appropriations bills as soon as possible, but there are questions on the mechanics and timing,” Graves said.

That process, Graves said, would allow conservatives to take control of the budget conversation and ensure that a last-minute, bipartisan deal wouldn’t be negotiated by leadership to avert a government shutdown.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC), which includes a majority of House Republicans, has backed the idea.

An “omnibus bill” is a bill that combines a lot of different bills into one. This would allow the Republicans to speed up the process so they aren’t forced to pass a continuing resolution simply because they’ve run out of time. But it doesn’t take away the possibility of passing a continuing resolution if they can’t get the votes for their omnibus bill. The Democrats would force them to do that and they’d be back at square one. The only thing this strategy might do is prevent Paul Ryan from crafting some kind of deal with the Democrats, but a deal is precisely what is needed to avoid the continuing resolution. And, in any case, there is currently no sign that Ryan is negotiating with the leadership of the Democratic Party. The conservatives are looking to solve a problem that doesn’t currently exist by crafting a solution that won’t work.

If Congress winds up with a Continuing Resolution, it won’t be the end of the world. From the Republicans’ point of view it would be a defeat because it would mean that even with a majority in both chambers of Congress and a Republican in the White House they still can’t craft a budget in their own image. Yet, that’s precisely how the conservatives feel about the need to compromise with the Democrats. They want their agenda enacted without watering it down, but that’s not an option. The Democrats would be relieved to see the government funded at present levels because it wouldn’t require them to make any painful concessions and it would stymie much of Trump’s agenda, like his desire for a border wall with Mexico.

The debt ceiling is a different matter. If the Republicans can’t figure out how to get that done, we’re all going to pay a big price.

I’ve been saying for months that this crack-up was coming because it was very easy to foresee. One possible way out is for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to eliminate the filibuster entirely so that the Republicans can pass anything at the 50-vote threshold. It could come to that because the Republicans have become so allergic to compromise that they may not be able to govern if any is required.  Before that happens, though, we’re first going to see what happens when their current plans crack up on the shoals.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at