WASHINGTON – In the U.S. Senate’s final session last week before a long summer recess, Republican Marco Rubio said simply, “I object.”
With those two words, he prevented lawmakers from finalizing a federal budget — the 18th time Republicans have done so this year — and sent the United States careening toward a possible government shutdown in a few months.
Congress is tasked with hammering out a spending plan before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, but the intractable relationship between President Barack Obama’s Democrats and rival Republicans has put that and several other major pieces of legislation in jeopardy.
Eight Republican senators met with Obama in the White House Thursday over how to reduce the deficit while ending automatic spending cuts that have forced military reductions and government furloughs.
The group is discussing possible changes to entitlement programs like Social Security or Medicare, and addressing options for ending the mandated spending cuts known as sequestration as they search for agreement on a grand bargain.
Senators who attended the meeting did not speak of any breakthrough, however.
Instead, Senate Republicans blocked a transportation and housing funding measure, and the House of Representatives withdrew its version of the same bill when some Republicans balked at the harsh cuts.
To keep the U.S. government working without a broad budget accord, the House and Senate will need to pass a stopgap “continuing resolution,” or CR, by the end of next month — but there will be just nine legislative days to do so after Congress reconvenes on Sept. 9.
The budget is not the only challenge lawmakers will face in the new session.
Immigration reform, an Obama priority that passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support in June, has stalled in the House. A massive farm bill has hit snags too. Battles are raging over whether to end sequestration.
Perhaps most worrisome of all, U.S. borrowing will reach its $16.7 trillion cap in November and many Republicans are itching to extract concessions from the White House — including defunding the national health care law — before agreeing to raise the debt ceiling.
“If they think nine days is enough to resolve all the differences . . . they’re very wrong,” exasperated House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday as members fled Washington for their home districts, many apparently unruffled by the threat of a government shutdown. “An aimless, chaotic, make-matters-worse Congress cannot get its act together.”
House Republicans think Obama is bluffing when he says he won’t negotiate on lifting the debt ceiling. They contend that the president’s position isn’t nearly as strong as it was at the end of last year, when the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush were about to expire. Obama, who had lots of leverage then, got half a loaf.
A key sticking point is that House Republicans are keen to set annual spending at $967 billion, while Senate Democrats want $1.058 trillion.
House Speaker John Boehner insisted Congress will have “ample time” to thrash out a CR and avert a shutdown, and he stressed that he has the votes to set spending limits at sequester levels. “Washington must confront some serious choices that we’re going to deal with this fall,” Boehner said. “President Obama and his party in the House and Senate are in denial about Washington’s spending problem.”
Republicans are in turmoil too, with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers issuing a blistering rebuke to his party’s leadership.
“The House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago,” Rogers wrote, referring to a plan put together by Paul Ryan, last year’s failed Republican vice presidential nominee.
“Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end.”
The White House shares that goal, hoping to restore domestic and military spending to the levels laid out in a 2011 compromise.
Republicans have said they would only agree to that if the savings are shifted to entitlements like Medicare, the public health insurance program for seniors, and to other mandatory spending programs.
As lawmakers hustled down the Capitol steps to head home Friday, some members stood outside arguing the need to hold the line in the face of a looming crisis, if it meant ultimately improving the economy.
“If I can stop this great country from unraveling, then I want to be an obstructionist,” said Republican Mike Kelly.
“If I’m going to be held accountable for holding this government accountable, amen.”