Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 | 2:03 p.m.
With only a few weeks until the Senate and House must approve new funding legislation to keep the country humming, Democrats are sounding an alarm: Republicans are willing to let the country go dark to score political points.
It’s fear-mongering a la 1995 that certainly seems plausible, given the standoff between Republicans and Democrats over how deep cuts to the budget should be.
But is it true that Republicans are willing to let the government go dark where Democrats are not?
“We can’t afford to let fixing our economy become a casualty of partisanship,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying he'd avoid a shutdown of government at all costs. His office handed out a list of quotes by various Republican lawmakers saying a government shutdown might well be on the horizon Thursday during a press conference to bring attention to the question of a shutdown. “This political tactic could kill our economic recovery and drive unemployment rates even higher.”
But House members say Reid is fabricating an existential crisis to score political points. Many are pointing the finger right back, saying it’s incumbent on Democrats, who control the White House and the Senate, to make the cuts necessary to save the economy from skyrocketing debt -- and if they don’t a shutdown will be just as much their fault.
“The only people discussing a government shut down are Democrats who control both the White House and the Senate,” said Nevada Rep. Dean Heller’s spokesman Stewart Bybee. “With more than $14 trillion in debt, government spending must be addressed in this process...This includes working together to achieve a balanced budget and bring government spending to sustainable levels. If the government shuts down it is a shared failure by both parties.”
The threat of a shutdown, perceived or real, doesn’t just come from a standoff over the budget. The country is also bound on a crash course toward the $14.294 trillion debt ceiling, a point that, if hit (we're at $14.108 trillion right now, and climbing), would mean the United States would start to default on its loans and have to cut essential services.
Republican leaders have identified both the budget deadline of March 4, and the less certain date of collision with the debt ceiling -- expected sometime in the spring -- to do something about runaway spending.
But Democrats are accusing Republicans of using the general state of panic in the country over the budget to call for across the board hacks that aren’t smart -- or going to do much to help put the country on a more prosperous course.
The funny part of all of this, of course, is that despite all the political vitriol, neither side has revealed a full budget proposal.
Yes, House Republican Budget committee chair Paul Ryan, who has unilateral authority to set spending limits for the House under the new rules of the 112th Congress, proposed slashing about $32 billion from the rest of the fiscal 2011 budget -- $74 billion less than Obama’s request. But that’s just a threshold, not a detailed resolution.
Meanwhile, the president’s budget for fiscal 2012 -- where everyone expects the real fight to focus -- isn’t due out until mid-month.
Some, like Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad, are calling for a general summit to iron out spending grievances and set a long-term course toward deficit reduction. Democrats and Republicans haven’t agreed, or disagreed.
But at some point soon, it seems like some communal traffic cop- work might be necessary.
“We will work from something that the House will send us,” Reid said, speaking for Democrats about the Republican’s yet-to-be-fully-unveiled budget proposal for the remainder of fiscal 2011, calling what they’ve seen so far “even more Draconian than we’d originally anticipated.”
But Republicans are waiting for Democrats to make the first move on the budget that will take us past September.
“We haven’t seen a bill yet,” said Rep. Joe Heck’s spokesman Darren Littell. “Until then, there’s nothing to say.”
But Reid insists the time is right for Democrats to be raising fears about government shutdowns.
“I think it’s important for us to talk about the government shutdown, especially when it gets patterned after statements made by people in the last few months that that’s what they want to do,” Reid said, referring to comments “made by especially the new people who have come to Congress.”