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Prospects slim to avert government shutdown

Sharp division on tying bill to a health law halt

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, protested the Senate not being in session.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, protested the Senate not being in session.WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans did little but blame each other Sunday as they dug in for an increasingly likely government shutdown set to begin at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

“We know what’s going to happen,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the number-two Democrat in the Senate, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “This is a terrible, destructive strategy” by Republicans, he said. “Totally unnecessary.”

“They’re the ones playing games,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a Republican on Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They need to act.”

Boehner on Sunday called on the Democratic-run Senate to return to work that afternoon, after the Republican-led House approved a measure in the wee hours of the morning that funds the government only if President Obama’s health law is delayed for one year and a medical device tax to help fund it is scrapped. He called the Senate’s failure to return on Sunday to work an act of “breathtaking arrogance.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid dismissed the proposal before it was even debated and said the Senate would reject it Monday, leaving only hours to resolve the stalemate.


The country last withstood a shutdown in December 1995 and January 1996. It lasted 21 days; most of the 16 shutdowns over the prior two decades were only a few days.

Some government contractors were told as early as last week not to show up for work this week. And in another sign that Washington believes a shutdown is imminent, at least one Democratic senator predicted on Sunday that his chamber would approve a House measure to ensure members of the military would be paid regardless.

A lengthy shutdown in this case could be especially troublesome, and not only for government workers, services, and the economy. A protracted standoff would also almost certainly mean the two political parties were unable to come to agreement on a second key fiscal deadline: raising the nation’s borrowing limit by Oct. 17, meaning the government would be at risk of defaulting on its debts.


That prospect has economists particularly worried about short-term and long-term damage to the economy and the stock market as well as increased borrowing costs for taxpayers.

“It doesn’t bode well,” Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said in an interview.

McGovern, who worked for J. Joseph Moakley, a former representative, during the 1996 shutdown, said he was discouraged to see Tea Party movement lawmakers slapping high-fives during the early Sunday morning vote that set the stage for a shutdown.

“When Gingrich was speaker and Republicans forced a shutdown, I always felt it would be resolved, because, deep down, most of them believed there should be a public sector,” McGovern said. “Now there is such contempt. They think this a game.”

President Clinton also drew distinctions between the 1996 shutdown and the current situation during an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Because the economy was growing and the deficit was shrinking, he said, “we didn’t give away the store, and they didn’t ask us to give away the store.” He said the required negotiations at the time were minor by comparison to what would be needed today.

“There is no opportunity for that in this forum,” he said. “We don’t have enough time.”

GOP conservatives dismissed that suggestion Sunday, accusing Obama of refusing to negotiate with them even as he opens talks with foreign dictators.


They also insisted they could find a way to keep the government open while forcing Obama to make a major change to the health law, even though that strategy has shown no sign of succeeding.

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ third-most powerful House member, told “Fox News Sunday” that his chamber would pass another bill if the Senate, as expected, rejects its latest offer.

“We will pass a bill . . . that will keep the government open, that will reflect the House, that I believe the Senate can accept, that will have fundamental changes [to] Obamacare that can protect the economy for America,” said McCarthy, of California.

It was unclear what, if any, specific proposal he had in mind.

The prospects for averting another shutdown, or ending it after a short duration, come down to a few possibilities:

■  Democrats and Republicans could pass a one-week extension and come to the negotiating table. The difficulty in this scenario is that Boehner has been continually overruled by rank-and-file lawmakers in his party, making it hard for him to close a deal with Democrats. And Obama, as well as Senate Democrats, have said they would like to quit using fiscal deadlines to negotiate. Adding another week could weaken their hand, given that polls show a majority of Americans would blame the GOP for a shutdown.

■ Boehner could wait for the Senate to reject the House bill, and then negotiate with House Democrats to craft a bill continuing government funding and leaving Obama’s health care bill intact. Boehner could almost certainly pass a bill with a combination of Democrats and Republicans. But it could very well be his last act as speaker. Tea Party Republicans have said he might lose his job if he passes a bill that does not have the support of the majority of Republicans.


“I think it would be devastating to the speaker’s support in the conference,” Representative Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican elected in 2012, said on Friday.

■  Reid could decide Monday to let the Senate vote against a delay in the health law, but in favor of repealing the medical device tax. A repeal of the tax has bipartisan support, and passed the Senate overwhelmingly, 79-20, in March. But the tax is expected to generate $29.1 billion over the next 10 years to help pay for the health law, and lawmakers have not come up with an alternative source of money.

That compromise also holds risk for both parties. Although it could save face for Republicans, many hard-liners are demanding more significant changes to the health care law. And many Democrats fear attaching any change to the law to a funding bill because it would set a precedent for fiscal deadlines.

■  Democrats and Republicans could agree to some other smaller change to the health law. Some Republicans, led by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, have been seeking a change that would strip employer health insurance subsidies for members of Congress and their staffs when they enter insurance exchanges established by Obama’s law.


The measure would give some opponents of the law a symbolic victory. But many lawmakers in both parties say they worry about losing quality members of their staffs and some have even admitted they would like to keep their own subsidy.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.