WASHINGTON – As their leaders sniped over who is to blame, divided American lawmakers careened Thursday toward a budget deadline that could see the U.S. government shut down on Oct. 1.
The debate over how to fund government is pushing Congress to the brink for a third straight year, with Democrats and Republicans seemingly unable to compromise on a stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep federal offices and programs running for even 2½ more months.
The Treasury Department reported Friday that the federal government posted a narrower budget deficit in August compared with a year ago, keeping the annual gap on track to be the smallest in five years. The deficit for August was $147.9 billion, bringing the annual budget gap through the first 11 months to $755 billion, or 35 percent lower than the nearly $1.2 trillion in red ink for the same period last year.
The budget year ends on Sept. 30. The Congressional Budget Office projects the government will run a surplus this month, lowering the annual deficit to $642 billion. That would be the first annual deficit below $1 trillion in five years.
Conservatives who carry sway in the Republican-led House of Representatives insist they will only vote for a budget deal if it defunds President Barack Obama’s national health care law, parts of which go into effect in October.
House Speaker John Boehner has introduced a CR to fund government until Dec. 15 at a baseline rate that includes the controversial automatic budget cuts that kicked in earlier this year.
In seeking to appease the right, he inserted a measure that calls for defunding “Obamacare.”
But some conservatives balked, calling it a gimmick that could be easily stripped from legislation that passes the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Boehner on Wednesday was forced to delay the vote.
Top House and Senate leaders met Thursday to navigate the impasse, but they sounded somber afterward.
“I’m really frightened,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters, referring to prospects of a government shutdown. “I had to be very candid with him (Boehner), and I told him very directly that all these things they are trying to do on Obamacare are just a waste of their time.”
Reid urged Boehner to break with Republicans backed by the so-called tea party faction of small-government radicals, whom he accused of using “guerrilla tactics” to bring spending to a halt. “If the Republican leaders keep giving in to the tea party and their impossible demands, they must be rooting for a shutdown,” Reid said.
Boehner sought to draw Obama into yet another fiscal negotiation, despite the White House repeating that dealing on the debt ceiling was off the table. “President Obama is going to have to deal with this as well,” he said at his weekly briefing.
Boehner bristled when a reporter noted there was very little time before the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, which could trigger a disastrous government shutdown if no budget is in place by Oct. 1. “I’m well aware of the deadlines. So are my colleagues,” Boehner said. “I’m going to be continuing to work with my fellow leaders and our members to address those concerns.”
He stressed that his caucus nevertheless will “do everything we can to repeal, dismantle and defund Obamacare.”
The two sides have shown a willingness to temporarily fund the government at the annual rate of $988 billion while they address broader fiscal challenges including the debt ceiling, which the U.S. Treasury said will need to be raised by mid-October.
With an ongoing revolt by conservatives, the White House sought to ward off their willingness to flirt with a potential shutdown and credit default.
“We will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obama-care,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “Congress needs to pass a budget and not attach politically motivated riders to their funding bills.”
Lawmakers returned from summer break last week expecting to focus on fiscal issues, but the Syria crisis postponed those debates, and on Thursday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor warned members that Congress might have to cancel a break set for the week of Sept. 23.