Budget fight offers crash course on Congress
Washington • If majorities in both the House and Senate would vote to reopen the government with no strings attached, or vote to repeal the new health care law's sales tax on heart pacemakers and MRI machines, then why isn't that happening?
The rancorous budget fight offers a crash course in the arcane ways and language of Congress that sometimes defy logic. The stalemate also has cast a spotlight on the institutional power of two men House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and whether they can act unilaterally as their political foes insist.
"Speaker Boehner, just vote," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday in insisting that the Republican leader has the votes in the House to pass a straightforward emergency spending bill with no conditions. Boehner says he lacks the votes in the House, certainly not the majority of his GOP caucus.
On the other side, Republicans insist that Reid is the obstructionist and cite is refusal to negotiate anything until the government reopens.
Here's a look at what Washington is saying:
Democrats are pressing Boehner to bring up a "clean" CR for a vote. What is it?
CR stands for continuing resolution, a temporary measure that continues funding government agencies and programs at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. The measure is necessary because Congress has failed to pass appropriations bills for each of the agencies and departments.
A so-called "clean" CR means a bill without conditions. House Republicans have repeatedly added provisions that would defund or roll back parts of the 3-year-old health care law, ignoring President Barack Obama's veto threats.
The Democratic-led Senate has rejected those versions, sending back a clean bill without health care limitations.
One measure would have repealed the medical device tax. Even though that step has bipartisan support, Democrats reject any move to change the health care law until the Republicans agree to vote on a bill re-opening the government.
Neither bill provides enough time to resolve long-standing Democratic and Republican budget differences and sort out overall government spending. The House version would keep the government running until Dec. 15; the Senate version until Nov. 15.
Could Boehner just let the House vote on the temporary spending bill with no strings attached?
Yes, to the extent that the rules of the House allow the speaker to set the agenda. Politically, though, a vote could cause a revolt by conservative Republican lawmakers and cost Boehner his top job. A vocal number of House Republicans pressured Boehner to link passage of a bill to keep the government running to changes in the health care law they deride as "Obamacare."
Boehner insists that Obama and Democrats must negotiate.
Democrats say they could prevail through a discharge petition. What's that and would it work?
This is one way of bypassing the speaker and getting a vote, though it requires several time-consuming steps. First, 217 members one more than half the House's current membership of 432 have to sign a petition. A motion to consider the temporary spending bill would then be placed on the calendar, but it can't be acted on for at least seven days. Any lawmaker can then call it up but only on the second or fourth Monday of the month. The motion is debated and if the House passes it, then lawmakers would consider and vote on the spending bill.
Currently there are 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats and three vacancies in the House. All 200 Democrats would sign the petition, but Democrats aren't confident 17 Republicans would join them, even though some two dozen GOP members have signaled they support a clean spending bill.
Signing a discharge petition would be a breach of loyalty for Republicans. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., one of the most outspoken critics of pairing the health care conditions with the spending bill, said Sunday he wouldn't sign a discharge petition. "It's not going to go anywhere," he said.
House Republicans have called for budget negotiations and appointed members to participate in a House-Senate conference. Why won't Reid appoint Senate conferees for talks?
The Democrats considered this a last-minute ploy just hours before the government shutdown last Monday. Senate Democrats led by Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington state repeatedly have asked for formal budget negotiations over the past six months. Murray had the backing of several Senate Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has led the fight to dismantle the health care law, objected. Reid has made reopening the government first a condition for budget negotiations.