It wasn’t supposed to happen this time.
Most in Washington seemed confident that those stress-inducing shutdown showdowns and debt-ceiling debacles wouldn’t cause distress in 2017. After all, Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Presidency. They had no reason to force a showdown with themselves. Right?
Well, if there is one thing we’ve learned in the first few months of GOP-led federal government, it’s that the party is perfectly capable of self-destructive splintering.
The collapse of the healthcare bill in March — or, its temporary setback, depending on who you ask — exposed and intensified internal rifts among Capitol Hill Republicans. Hard-line conservatives and moderates both split with GOP leadership on that bill, and then fought over who was to blame. President Donald Trump lashed out at the hard-liners. Senate Republicans blamed their House colleagues, and then turned their backs when House Republicans sought to give health care another try.
Meanwhile, an emboldened Democratic Party, spurred on by a take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises sentiment from their base, seem increasingly willing to fight rather than cooperate.
The fire in the Democratic belly might be further fueled this week, when the Senate is scheduled to vote on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. It appears likely that more than 40 Democrats will vote against cloture—that is, to filibuster the nomination. Although Republican leader Mitch McConnell has not explicitly said so, he has strongly implied that he will invoke the so-called “nuclear option” of changing the rule requiring cloture on Supreme Court confirmations. Doing so will undoubtedly invoke the fury of Democrats.
Add the ongoing investigations into Russian election meddling — which seems to generate a new farcical spin-off controversy almost weekly — and you’ve got a city that seems to be staggering through several simultaneous earthquakes.
And into that shaky scenario, shutdown and debt-limit deadlines are suddenly adding additional tension and uncertainty.
First up: a potential government shutdown when the current Continuing Resolution expires late this month. More specifically, on April 28 — the 100th day of Trump’s Presidency. The traditional overview reports marking that occasion figure to be brutal enough as is; the White House certainly doesn’t want them punctuated by an inability to keep the government operating.
Republican leaders in Congress know that they always take the brunt of the public blame for shutdowns, even in divided government. If it happens when the GOP appears to hold all the cards, condemnation could be even worse.
Yet they will need some Democratic votes in the Senate to get the budget appropriation bills done. Republicans have 52 U.S. Senators, but need 60 votes to advance to a final vote.
Negotiations are said to be going well, as the Senate works through the separate appropriations bill for the various parts of the federal government. The Senate heads into Easter recess at the end of this week — the House has already left — which will leave almost no time for maneuvering when both chambers return on the 24th. But that could work to their advantage, as the leadership can hammer out the details quietly, while potentially disruptive members are away.
But the danger, as usual, lies not in the big picture but in the potential “poison pill” items that one group insists upon and another group balks at. And, it’s not always clear in advance what measures prove to be true poison, and which can be swallowed with the proper inducements.
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer warned about the inclusion of such poison pills, in a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell three weeks ago. Number one on his list was funding for a border wall—a top priority for Trump, and for many House Republicans. But he went on to mention Planned Parenthood defunding and defense spending, among others.
House Speaker Paul Ryan last week said that the border wall funds and Planned Parenthood cuts would not be included in the funding bill. He also publicly guaranteed that the funding bill will pass before the 28th. But, he appeared confident that the healthcare bill would pass, too.