OPED: Shutdown lurking in the wings

Tribune News Service
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., emerges from a closed-door GOP strategy session at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.    (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A long-brewing clash between the GOP-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama is nearing the flash points that will test whether Republicans can redeem their campaign pledges to trim back Obamacare and other administration initiatives.

Lurking in the wings: the possibility of another governmental shutdown, possibly a long one.

Republican leaders insist that won't happen. In fact, much of their impending effort appears to be political theater, aimed less at enacting legislation than at appeasing their restive troops outside Washington who have complained about their failure to stop Obamacare and other Obama programs since the GOP won majorities in both houses. They talk of forcing Obama to accept unwanted changes, but their real goal may be to neutralize his ability to act until January 2017 when they hope to be joined by a Republican president.

It's the battle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled even before the 2014 elections when he said that his goal was to use the appropriations process to trim programs Republicans had heretofore failed to stop.

The new speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, seems quite comfortable in making the effort when lawmakers consider a legislative package extending federal funding due to expire Dec. 11. Both sides delayed a showdown in late October when they agreed on overall spending levels for the next two years, removing one major source of partisan conflict. But that agreement didn't foreclose GOP hopes of shifting allocations and attaching policy riders to the one measure Congress has to pass before it can end this year's session.

And GOP leaders are making progress in resolving impasses in other important areas, agreeing Tuesday on a five-year highway funding bill that will also revive the Export-Import Bank and nearing final action on a rewrite of the controversial No Child Left Behind education program.

Meanwhile, McConnell hopes to pass the so-called reconciliation bill, implementing budget decisions lawmakers made earlier this year. As passed by the House, it cuts key parts of Obama's cherished Affordable Care Act and transfers to community health centers the funds for Planned Parenthood's women's health programs in the wake of controversy over its sale of fetal tissue for medical research.

Under Senate rules, a reconciliation bill can't be blocked by a filibuster, meaning it needs only 51 votes to pass, compared with the 60 required for most legislation. But though there are 54 GOP senators, three moderates reportedly oppose ending Planned Parenthood funding and three conservatives, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, threatened to vote against it unless it eliminated more of Obamacare.

McConnell may have appeased them with a provision phasing out the health law's Medicaid expansion through which some 12 million Americans gained health insurance coverage.

In any case, like so much legislative activity these days, the exercise seems designed mainly to show angry conservatives that congressional Republicans are determined to carry out campaign pledges. There is no chance the bill will become law since, even if it passes both houses, it faces an Obama veto the GOP won't be able to override.

But Republican leaders hope its passage might keep those two incendiary issues — repealing Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood — out of the must-pass continuing resolution, making it more acceptable to Senate Democrats and, ultimately, Obama. That may depend on the degree to which GOP lawmakers can attach unacceptable policy riders.

Besides Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, potential Republican targets include the administration's ability to admit Syrian refugees, the Dodd-Frank securities exchange law, and the rule-making authority of agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. One interesting aspect of the debate will be whether Ryan pursues his promise of a more open House by allowing members freedom to propose policy riders. In any case, there are virtually no limits on what senators can propose.

Resolving this by next Friday's deadline will be difficult, and Obama and lawmakers may have to extend funding for at least a week to allow more time to craft a compromise. But failure to agree could trigger exactly what McConnell vowed to avoid, another governmental shutdown possibly extending into 2016.

Often in the past, when faced with such a deadline, lawmakers found a way to finesse their differences, and many on both sides believe that will happen again. But Republican lawmakers may face pressure from GOP presidential hopefuls against making the usual compromises, even if that means a shutdown polls show would likely hurt them more than Democrats.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.