Specter of Shutdown Drives Work to Fund Government

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By Nancy Ognanovich

May 11 — As Republican leaders work to move appropriations bills this spring, they are motivated by the specter of a government shutdown on the eve of the November election.

A replay of the 2013 crisis that could close agencies and furlough federal employees—and send financial markets into a new tailspin—could spell disaster for party leaders as they try to hold on to their majorities and also help presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump win the White House.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are expected to seek assurances from Trump as they begin discussions with him May 12 that the billionaire reality TV star and real estate developer shares their goal of avoiding any crisis when current government funding runs out Sept. 30.

Strategists in both parties expect Ryan and McConnell will make every effort to enact a new continuing resolution (CR) to avoid any disruption during the critical weeks leading up to the election. But they also said intraparty budget battles and the general volatility of the political season make it impossible to say that a shutdown will be completely off the table.

“I don't know how much standard thinking works these days,” said Stan Collender, a former House and Senate budget aide who is now executive vice president of Qorvis MSLGROUP. “There's clearly been some kind of shift in American politics. It's possible that a government shutdown to the [House] Freedom Caucus and Trump supporters would not be that big of a deal. They might think that's a campaign event.”

Dual Political Motivators

The meeting with Trump comes just as both congressional leaders are trying to jump-start this year's appropriations process and return to what they call “regular order” by passing individual bills.

Without a budget resolution, Ryan will be able to begin bringing the first of the fiscal year 2017 spending bills to the House floor on May 15. McConnell already decided to go first and “deem” the $1.070 trillion discretionary cap in last fall's budget deal to guide Senate appropriators' work. McConnell is expected to get the first of the Senate bills finished May 12 and then move to a second one the week of May 16.

But the difficulty in finishing the House Energy and Water bill (H.R. 2028) makes clear the uphill battle that Republicans face as they try to do all 12 bills in the little more than 30 legislative days remaining before Congress departs July 15 for a seven-week recess (See previous story, 05/10/16). Among other things, Democrats' support for the plan depends on Republicans moving bills that follow the budget deal and avoiding policy riders the White House opposes.

Driving McConnell's strategy is a desire to help reestablish Republicans' governing credentials after the disaster of the 2013 shutdown and other financial crises. His determination to avoid shutdowns also reflects his plan to protect 24 Republican senators in their re-election bids.

But Trump's recent ascension to presumptive nominee—and the almost simultaneous return of Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to the Senate—add new wrinkles to the plans, Collender and others told Bloomberg BNA. Collender said Republicans largely blame Cruz for the 2013 government shutdown and don't trust him not to force another crisis this fall. Cruz also drew colleagues' criticism for taking to the Senate floor to launch personal attacks against McConnell.

Jim Dyer, a principal at Podesta Group and former Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said that if there is a shutdown threat it will originate with Cruz, not Trump.

“The guy's an egomaniac,” Dyer said of Cruz, who worked with House Republicans to oppose stopgap government spending bills in 2013. “The question is, is he going to disappear out of the public view? I don't think he's prepared to do that. I think he wants to hang around and see if he gets another run at it.

“He'll have fewer friends than he ever had.”

Cruz Factor Weighed

Bill Hoagland, who served as director of budget and appropriations for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), told Bloomberg BNA that he wants to believe there is no risk of a shutdown even if he, like Dyer, doesn't see the 12 bills being finished by the time government funding runs out Sept. 30.

“But I say that so cavalierly, knowing Mr. Cruz is back,” Hoagland added.

Hoagland, now senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said Cruz's opposition to the 2013 stopgaps was motivated in part by a desire to withhold funding for the Affordable Care Act. The matter of ACA funding hasn't gone away, he said.

Hoagland said Republican leaders now have to convince Cruz that opposing the appropriations bills or any stopgap needed in September is a threat to keeping control of the Senate. As a starting point, Cruz did join Republicans in voting in favor of moving the Energy and Water bill ahead May 11.

“There's so many Republicans that are vulnerable and that are up this year that I think he will be tempered on that,” Hoagland said.

Hoagland said a similar message needs to be delivered to Trump.

“I would hope that they would recognize that there's danger in the United States for Mr. McConnell and his party going into the minority by having a government shutdown,” Hoagland said.

Shutdown at Year's End?

But moves to avoid a shutdown at the end of September wouldn't remove the threat at year's end when a stopgap would probably expire. Collender and others said they expect a CR will run into mid-December in order to give lawmakers time to negotiate a 12-bill omnibus spending package during a post-election (lame-duck) session.

“I've probably been the biggest predictor of shutdowns over the years,” Collender said. “It's hard for me to imagine it happening just before a presidential election. It is much more likely to happen in December, if a continuing resolution expires at that point.”

But if Trump wins the White House, Republicans may not want to negotiate an omnibus in the lame-duck session but instead try to delay decisions until he takes office in late January, he said.

In either case, Collender said the one certainty is that conventional thinking no longer applies to the political and legislative landscape.

“How crazy are these Freedom Caucus people? I mean, they don't like Mitch McConnell, they wouldn't mind him not being majority leader,” Collender said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com